Preservation Pittsburgh pushes for historic designation for Oliver Bath House
February 25, 2017 12:00 AM
The Oliver Bath House on the South Side has a Tudor Revival/Collegiate Gothic architecture style.
Shaoda Chen, 69, bottom, relaxes Thursday at the Oliver Bath House at Bingham and South 10th streets on the South Side. The bath house opened in 1915 and is the city's oldest public swimming pool.
Shaoda Chen, 69, bottom, relaxes Thursday at the Oliver Bath House at Bingham and South 10th streets on the South Side.
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When the Oliver Bath House opened to the public on the South Side more than 100 years ago, it was special. For one thing, it was one of the few facilities in the nation that offered industrial workers a place to swim as well as a place to bathe.
Members of Preservation Pittsburgh believe the bath house -- particularly its unique Tudor Revival/Collegiate Gothic architecture style -- is still special, and worthy of being designated as an historic landmark.
Matthew W.C. Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, this month began the process that would recognize the facility at the intersection of Bingham and South 10th streets for what it has done as well as what it continues to do. It’s a suggestion that, he said, is being warmly received.
“Quite frankly, the response we hear most often is that everyone’s shocked that it wasn’t already designated as a landmark,” he said. “We approached some members of the South Side Community Council, and they were bewildered. So I’d say everyone is very positive.”
Whole blocks of the South Side received landmark status as the East Carson Street Historic District in 1993 and in 1999, but the Oliver Bath House was left out. The push for the facility began in earnest just a couple of years ago, Mr. Falcone said.
“There is no other building like it in the city of Pittsburgh,” he said, “and it speaks directly to how we grew as a city. The level of philanthropy that benefited the community. It’s an exceptional piece of our history. There is no other like it in our city and very few across the country. It would be great to recognize its importance.”
The idea for the bath house was born in the early 1900s, when industrialist Henry W. Oliver saw the need to provide mill workers a place where they could clean and refresh themselves after their shifts. Indoor plumbing was rare, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. (Pittsburgh did not require bathrooms in homes or apartments until the 1950s.) Many workers simply rinsed off in the Monongahela River on their way home.
At the time, there were fewer than 100 bath houses in the country, three of them in Pittsburgh. But Oliver wanted his bath house to be special, making the swimming pool elemental. For the first design, he turned to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, whose work included Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Oliver, however, died in 1904, and the plans Burnham penciled out were lost. A decade later, it was Oliver’s widow, Edith, and their daughter who followed through on his wishes, turning to Pittsburgh architects MacClure and Spahr, designers of numerous landmark buildings.
The Oliver Bath House, which opened in 1915, is a two-story structure welcoming people who cross the 10th Street Bridge to the South Side. Inside is a 40-by-60-foot heated pool, ranging in depth from 3 to 8 feet. Its bottom is made of original tiles. Lockers, showers, changing areas and restrooms are upstairs in a wrap-around gallery of enameled bricks. (The bathhouse was for men only when it first opened, but has since allowed women as well.)
When you enter, the few modern clues are a vending machine, some blow dryers and a boom box that plays music from a local radio station. Its age also is apparent in its peeling paint and a leaky wooden roof.
“It’s old-school,” said Michael Clark, vice president of the South Side Community Council. He moved to Pittsburgh from Toronto in 1999 and had never heard of a bath house before. Now, he and his 9-year-old daughter, Madie, are regular patrons.
“You first walk in, it’s rough, it’s old,” he said. “But as an architect, I appreciated it, especially the pool. The water is clean and warm. And the cost of swimming lessons is so much more reasonable, especially with little ones. A lot of times they’re fussy and you’re just putting them in the water, they aren’t learning.
“Most people think of the South Side, the great bars and restaurants. But we have so much more. And this is just a jewel that everybody should love.”
Walking around the building, Mr. Clark points out the bas relief sculptures of five fish overlooking Bingham Street from the rooftop, their tails swishing different directions.
“It’s stuff we don’t see done anymore,” he said. “Even though we can do it -- we have great craftsmen in America -- we just don’t see the time and energy being spent on things that aren’t down at eye level, where people are going to touch it and see it. Owners want to spend their money down where the people are. A lot of times it’s stuff like this that the building takes on this great character that people appreciate.”
But as historic as the pool is, it is not elemental to the landmark designation being sought. It’s the exterior that is being protected. If the city were to sell the building to a private entity, the interior could be altered or gutted.
“The focus is really on what the building looks like from the outside,” Mr. Falcone said of the application. “Some cities’ [historic designations] address the interiors more, but Pittsburgh’s ordinance focuses on the exterior. Fortunately, this building does have a lot of uniqueness. While the swimming pool is the heart of it, this is a striking building still in its original form. ... The [designation] wouldn’t keep the pool operating, but it would make my heart sing if it was able to stay a bath house.”
South Side Slopes resident Karen Powell, 58, has been swimming laps in the bath house a couple times a week since she was a child. (The facility, which is closed in the summer, is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
“I do it to stay healthy, to stay fit,” she said. “I like that it’s old. And you never can tell what kind of crowd you’re going to see. Sometimes there’s a lot of people here, and sometimes I have the pool to myself.”
Mr. Falcone said the bath house could attain historic status as early as this fall, following hearings before the city’s Historic Review Commission, the Planning Commission and City Council.
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