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In the Swim

Jewish visionaries helped create New York City’s public pools

Marjorie Ingall
June 28, 2019
Photo: Library of Congress
City children bathing for free at the Battery, New York City, c. 1908.Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
City children bathing for free at the Battery, New York City, c. 1908.Photo: Library of Congress

New York City’s 54 outdoor swimming pools open the day after public school lets out for the summer. This year, that’s June 27. Many of these pools are gorgeous structures with art deco flair: decorative marble panels, colorful mosaics, snazzy geometric ornamentation, glazed bricks, swooping steps, and curvy balustrades. And for their existence, we can thank two Jewish visionaries—one generally revered, the other reviled.

The first visionary of urban bathing facilities was physician Simon Baruch (1840-1921). Baruch was an immigrant to America, a social reformer who wanted to improve the lives of other immigrants. He was a passionate believer in the healing powers of clean water at a time when that was in short supply … and when many other physicians didn’t grasp the importance of hygiene in public health.

Baruch had emigrated from Germany to South Carolina as a teenager and graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1862. He served as a surgeon in the Confederate army and remained in the South during Reconstruction. He wrote a well-received medical treatise on healing bayonet wounds and became a fierce advocate for universal smallpox vaccination.

In the 1880s, he moved to New York City. There he set about helping the huddled masses and wretched refuse of the city’s tenements. At the time, New York City’s population was skyrocketing, and cholera and typhoid epidemics were ravaging the Lower East Side. Baruch thought about the public bath system in Germany and returned there to study it, convinced that it could help New York City’s communities living in unsanitary conditions. Upon his return to the States, Baruch wrote The Uses of Water in Modern Medicine (1892) and other books on hypnotherapy. He began working to create a network of free public baths.

In 1895, his campaign was given a huge boost by the New York State Legislature’s passage of a law that required free bathhouses in cities with populations over 50,000. At the time, one survey found, there was just one bathtub per 79 families on the Lower East Side. For those without bathtub access, an option was the People’s Baths, at Centre and Grand streets, which opened in 1891; there, a bath plus the use of soap and a towel cost 5 cents.

But with the new law came the funding for multiple new structures that offered cleanliness at no cost. In 1901, after many delays, Baruch opened the city’s first public bath: the Rivington St. Municipal Bath at 326 Rivington Street. It had indoor and outdoor bathing pools, 67 showers (45 for men and 22 for women) and five soaking tubs. In 1902’s The Battle with the Slum, Jacob Riis wrote that it served 224,876 bathers in the first five months of 1902. “And this in winter!” he exclaimed. Now that the bathhouse had finally opened, he said, “godliness will have a chance to move in with cleanliness.” He added, with nearly audible tongue-clucking, “Rome, two thousand years ago, washed its people most sedulously, and in heathen Japan to-day, I am told, there are baths, as we have saloons, on every corner.” Riis quoted a study showing that only 306 tenement dwellers in a population of over 250,000 had access to a bathtub; the fact that the Rivington baths were a huge hit, as were the free temporary baths floating on pontoons on the Hudson and East rivers, showed that “the ‘great unwashed’ were not so from choice, it would appear.” Indeed.

By 1911, Manhattan had 12 bathhouses. A few of them had actual swimming pools, like the majestic (still!) Asser Levy Public Baths, built in 1908 by Brunner & Aiken and designed to look like an ancient Roman bathhouse. A “superb example of the Roman Revival style, which features vaulted ceilings, balconies, mullion windows, skylights, and stone urns,” it was made a New York City landmark in 1974 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Its namesake, Asser Levy, was one of the first Jewish citizens of NYC and a civil rights advocate. He was one of the 23 Jews who fled Brazil for New Amsterdam in 1654 and distressed Peter Stuyvesant with his very presence. Levy co-founded Shearith Israel, the country’s first Jewish congregation, and became the first Jew in America to own property as well as America’s first kosher butcher. The elementary school named after him in Manhattan’s East Village is called the Asher Levy School, because Asser Levy is not a good name for an elementary school.

Meanwhile, the floating outdoor baths that Riis mentioned, which served between 5 and 6 million New Yorkers a year, began to prove untenable. By the early 1920s, the rivers were becoming too polluted to be safe for bathing. The city began closing the wooden structures, and the last floating bath disappeared in 1938.

Fortunately, by then there were more cooling-off options in New York City. That’s because the scorching summer of 1936 became known as The Summer of Pools. The city opened 11 huge new state-of-the-art Works Progress Administration pools; the city’s Parks Department called them “among the most remarkable public recreational facilities in the country, representing the forefront of design and technology in advanced filtration and chlorination systems.” The Summer of Pools was spearheaded by controversial city Commissioner Robert Moses, who attended every pool opening with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and made sure each one was a huge megillah, featuring entertainments ranging from celebrity appearances to synchronized-swimming shows and swimming clowns and diving competitions to blessings of the waters by religious figures and performances by professional musicians and dancers. Today, of course, Moses is best known for his domineering and bullying ways, for valuing expressways and private cars over foot traffic and public transit, for making urban planning decisions that repeatedly hurt poor people and people of color, and for being a total schmuck to Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of American Cities. But he did a great job building pools!

Moses launched a free citywide Learn to Swim program in 1938, since up to 400 people a year drowned in NYC’s waterways. (It’s unclear whether Moses knew about the Talmudic instruction that teaching a child to swim is a primary parental obligation.) Moses also wanted to keep kids from getting sick swimming in the polluted river water. The city’s Learn to Swim campaign still exists, instructing around 7,000 kids every summer.

While Jewish men spearheaded the creation of the city’s pools and bathhouses, very few Jews actually designed them. A notable exception: In 1971, Brooklyn native Morris Lapidus, who also built Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotel pools, designed the Kosciuszko Pool in Bed-Stuy. If you’re not familiar with the Fontainebleau, perhaps the title of Lapidus’ memoir, Too Much Is Never Enough, will clarify his aesthetic. Lapidus claimed that his design vision originated with his first sight of chaotic, colorful, populist Coney Island as a young Russian immigrant; he felt “an emotional surge” about architecture for the very first time. So he was thrilled to return to Brooklyn to create a public pool. “I came from yesterday’s ghettos,” he said. “Of course we will do this project. I owe it to this city and to myself.”

Morris Lapidus’ son Alan was a partner in his architectural firm and the author of a sly memoir of his own, Everything by Design. Alan is perhaps best known as the designer of several Donald Trump properties, including his Atlantic City casino. (Trump himself blurbed Alan’s book: “Pay attention to what he has to say—he is very good!” I believe Trump actually wrote that blurb. I do not believe he read the book.) Alan recalls that when he and his father met with Mayor John Lindsay at Tavern on the Green to discuss the project, Morris reminisced about growing up just two blocks from the future pool site and suffering during the sweltering summers; he and his friends resorted to diving off the Brooklyn wharves into the East River.

Alan writes that he, not his dad, actually created the Kosciuszko Pool design: a semi-underground building with broad graduated platforms that water cascaded down, along with vast platform steps leading up to a rooftop playground, a sculptural fountain, an adjacent wading pool, a jungle gym, and 200-foot lights too tall for little miscreants to break with projectiles. Many of the building materials came from Brooklyn’s shipyards. The pool is gigantic: 230 feet long by 100 feet wide, with a 3,000-person capacity. It was not a joy to build. “New York City has the most archaic and unworkable rules governing municipal construction since Pharaoh built the Great Pyramid,” Alan Lapidus writes in his memoir. “And city functionaries administer these dictates with all the competence of Lucille Ball on the chocolate factory assembly line.” His story of how the pool actually manifested, despite obstacle after obstacle thrown up by the city (hey, Baruch had problems with city construction, too) is very funny.

The pool was a hit with critics as well as the public. The architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable, who despised Lapidus’ work and used “Lapidus” as an adjective meaning ungapatchka, loved the Kosciuszko Pool. It won design prizes and rave reviews in architecture journals. According to Alan, this infuriated Morris and drove a wedge between the two of them; they never again spoke of the pool. “The whole Bed-Stuy affair qualifies as a father-son tragedy,” Alan writes.

The Kosciuszko Pool will welcome this generation’s young swimmers this week. The Rivington Street Municipal Bath, though, remains in limbo. In 1917, it was renamed the Baruch Baths (Simon’s son Bernard M. Baruch, a Wall Street titan, put his father’s name on many things) and acquired a swimming pool, but during the city’s financial crisis in 1975, the building was shuttered. It has remained bricked up and unloved since then. The beleaguered New York City Housing Authority went inside in 2001 to see whether it could be saved, and found rotting beams, trees growing through the roof, structural damage, extensive mold, basement flooding, and probable lead paint. NYCHA recommended demolition. And then the building sat for another two decades.

Last year, the city began seeking proposals for what to do with the bathhouse building; neighbors are hoping it might become a community center. That would probably make Simon Baruch happy.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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