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By Jonathan Haeber
Drive to the San Francisco Zoo, and you’ll notice a fenced-off and decrepit building next to the parking lot. The “bath house” is all that is left of what was once the world’s largest pool. In fact, under the asphalt parking lot, the structure of the Fleishhacker Pool still sits, perhaps waiting to be excavated by future generations.
The year was 1921 and only a few years earlier, a grand scheme to bring water to the city of San Francisco came to fruition. Despite the protests of John Muir, the Spring Valley Water Company had succeeded in transporting fresh glacier water hundreds of miles from Yosemite to San Francisco. The Fleishhacker Pool was a final capstone in the symbolic “watering” of San Francisco, and the city of San Francisco had spared no expense.
Spring Valley Water Company was the quintessential symbol of Pork Barrel Spending in post-Earthquake San Francisco. The company had used ruthless lobbying to derail John Muir’s efforts to save Hetch Hetchy. Spring Valley Water was so effective at reaping the rewards of politicians that they literally convinced Congress to turn what would become part of a National Park into the personal Bethsheba of San Francisco. To this day, the city depends on the water of Hetch Hetchy, but it came at a cost – the valley was considered only second to Yosemite Valley itself before it was inundated by the waters of the dam.
None of this controversy takes away from the beauty of the pool’s grand construction. There was little public discussion of the kickback made to Spring Valley Water for the land “given” to the city. The Fleishhacker Pool opened in April of 1925 to a crowd of 5,000. Buttressing the edge of the the pool was the 450-foot-long Bath House — a Mediterranean, Italianate structure with three elaborate entrances, all surrounded by an Ionic order of pilasters. Inside were separate wings for men, women, and children. These wings were naturally illuminated by 22 skylights. Upstairs was a grand restaurant that looked out to the 1000-foot-long pool on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
How did this beautiful building and its record-setting pool come about? It was an eminent San Francisco banker, Herbert Fleishhacker, who decided to build it. In the 1927 book, Financing an Empire, he was called, “One of the most influential, progressive, and valuable businessmen of the Golden State.” Still others, including the author of a 1932 letter to the Editor in Time Magazine, had an entirely opposite view of the man as a “sugar daddy” to San Francisco Mayor Rolph’s campaigns. Fleishhacker, the man, was only second to Gianninni of Bank of America, when it it came to California Banking Dominance. His bank would eventually hold $200,000,000 in deposits.
Whether he was acting with smart business sense, or if he truly wanted to provide a place of civic benefit we’ll probably never know. But as a result of his efforts as commissioner of the San Francisco Parks commission, Fleishhacker spearheaded the campaign to construct the pool. The direct beneficiary of the massive public project was the Spring Valley Water Company. The total cost of the project was estimated at $1.5 million – even for the roaring twenties, this was a huge sum of money.
Throughout its five-decade history as a public swimming destination, Fleishhacker would be the setting of San Francisco’s most unique lores and legends; there was the story of the shark being sucked in through the 200-foot-long intake pipe coming from the ocean, a stove discovered in the deep end of the pool when it was drained for maintenance, and the disembodied hand reportedly found by a gardener, floating in the pool. But the real amazing facts reside in the sheer size of the pool – 1000 feet long, over 150 feet wide, and 13 feet deep at its deepest point. The pool held 6,000,000 gallons of ocean water, continually cleaned once every six weeks by becoming completely drained and sweeped and pumped clean. It had a capacity of 10,000 people. Years after its construction, when Fleishhacker was asked by one of the pool’s lifeguards why he had built such a large pool, he responded by telling the lifeguard to swim the entire length. When the lifeguard returned, he responded, “Did anyone get in your way?” The lifeguard said no; and Fleishhacker promptly replied, “That’s why.”Image Courtesy: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
The Fleishhacker Pool would be a place of rest and relaxation for almost five decades until an unfortunate storm had destroyed its outake and intake pipe. It closed in 1971.
I made my first pilgrimage to the site on a foggy summer day. Finding my way in, along with a fellow photographer, we discovered that the interior of the Bath House had turned into an elaborate tapestry for the local homeless. The grand staircases and rooms that once had been a dining room were partioned off and served as private quarters for the homeless. It was as if a mansion had been inhabited by survivors after the end of a nuclear winter. Natural light had brought out the mad ramblings of drug-induced artistic liberty. Purple and green paint, wherever the homeless could procure it, covered the walls. All matter of junk and detritus had found its way somehow through the tiny entrance. Once inside, this junk was turned to utilitarian purposes. A plastic bag became a lampshade. AN old, broken camping stove was the new mess hall. Huge trash bags were full of dried Marijauna; and 2x4s were haphazardly nailed together on a wall to create a makeshift bookcase – full of pulp novels.
Everything about the inside of the Fleishhacker Bath House seethed addiction and madness; yet it was beautiful at the same time, both for what it had become and what it once was. My fellow photographer, who had gone with me, said that one of the local homeless who lived in the bath house was recently pushed down an elevator shaft and had died. The door to his room was cracked open. Posted next to it was his last note (written before he passed away): “YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS. DO NOT COME INTO MY ROOM. DON’T you have any respect for privacy!!!” Of course, nobody had paid attention to the note. Kids, probably recently back from a night out and in search of drugs or money, had rifled through his things. His pots and pans, his bed sheets and belongings were strewn all over – the leftovers of a fruitless search in thievery.
I will never forget my visit to the Fleishhacker Bath House. It was the most surreal experience among all of the buildings I’ve photographed. If you ever find yourself on the coast of San Francisco, you should pull off to the side of the Great American Highway. Walk around the bath house, and imagine what it was like, 80 years ago, when the pool hosted thousands a day, and swimmers went the equivalent of ten laps in a single, straight line South.