Fleishhacker Pool – A Strange Journey Through S.F. History

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By Jonathan H

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.

Landholdings of the Spring Valley Water Company
Landholdings of the Spring Valley Water Company

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.

Fleishacker Bath House Plans
Fleishacker Bath House Plans

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.

Herbert Fleishhacker, the Conceiver and Mastermind Behind the Pool
Herbert Fleishhacker, the Conceiver and Mastermind Behind the Pool

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.

74 comments on “Fleishhacker Pool – A Strange Journey Through S.F. History

  1. Rhonda H. on said:

    On a recent walk, my friend told me she posted information about the Fleishhaker Pool, I was so fascinated that I started searching the web for as much information as I could read about it, I’m studying to be an IT/Librarian and this sort of thing is so amazing to find and share!! I grew up in Napa Valley/Bay Area when I was about 6 years old my Dad took us to Jack London’s estate I learned a lot about his home in Glen Ellen and subsequent fire on the property. The decayed pool felt very eery to me at that time and yet I could not stop thinking about it, even now I remember being there and how I felt. I wish we could rally to restore the Fleishhaker Pool for this generation. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Michael Genochio on said:

    It is a shame that city could’nt find a way to keep the pool open.I was there many times as a teenager. Yes it was very cold. I remember my Dad telling us that pool was heated. He would say that they had a guy under the pool with a book of matches. The memories are stiil there. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time, and enjoy what made San Francisco so special.

  3. Ruth Gottstein on said:

    As a native San Franciscan, I remember swimming all alone in that huge pool on foggy days. I could not have been ten years old. No life guard on duty, no one around, just me, paddling solitarily, up and down, up and down.

  4. blackrose on said:

    My Dad used to swim there.He wanted to be in the olympics,but he didn’t have the money.I remember when they closed it down.A piece of San Francisco was gone.Thank you for sharing this.Maybe it can be refurbished one day.

  5. blackrose on said:

    this was a great story.I remember when they closed it.It was sad, a piece of the city was gone.My Dad swam there when he was young,and he had great memories of this place.Maybe they can refurbish it one of these days.

  6. Elita (de Uriose) Rausch on said:

    Does anyone remember going ice skating there? We could look through the windows to see a number of pools. Never went swimming there, but I recall being told the pools were different temperatures and one was a salt
    water pool. Also recall descending many stairs to get to the rink. Lots of intriguing stuffed animals in glass cases along the way.

  7. Jon Haeber on said:

    Are you sure youre not thinking of the sutro baths? Those were nearby, but I don’t think Fleishhacker ever had ice skating… I could be wrong though.

  8. Robert Lawrence on said:

    I grew up near there. I went often after school. In the late sixties it cost 10 cents for under 18. Unbelievely huge and always almost no one there. Maybe 10 to 20 users on a typical weekday 3pm till closing. Huge distance between you and anyone else. You could skinny drip and no one would notice. It was heated, but not warm. You had to move around alot in the water. Almost always a little fog above. On a sunny day maybe 400 to 500 people would show up. Can’t imagine anyone reopening this pool It was a White Elephate. The cost to maintain verus the income. Even in the sixties a dime wasn’t much money.

  9. KathleenO'Leary on said:

    Took Red Cross Swimming Lessons there as a kid. While my mother stood outside the fence in her winter coat and scarf! Amazing memories of a great place. Even have a picture of older members of my family at the pool in the 20’s in their rented bathing suits, dark close knit wool pieces. And the ice rink was at Sutro’s at the top of the Great Highway! the old baths were closed off and the glass painted over, but if you went up close you coul see through to the emplty smaller pools. The big swimming pool was a great place to ice skate for years. But you had to endure the long stairways down to the pool and back up after hours of skating!
    Great memories!

  10. Aimee on said:

    Is there anything remaining of this pool at this time? I read that the last part was destroyed in December 2012, so I wanted to know if there is anything remaining…Thanks.

  11. Aimee, The pool was filled in with gravel, and I believe eventually paved so the zoo could have over-flow parking. My dad was a lifeguard there in the 40’s and they patroled in a small row boat!!!

  12. Jon H on said:

    The bath house was recently destroyed in a fire. Not much is left, unfortunately.

  13. Mike Galli on said:

    I took swimming lessons there in 1953 or -54. All I remember was how cold it was. I think the lessons lasted 2-weeks. I walked from 39th and Rivera to the pool every morning and back by myself! One morning before we jumped in, one of our instructors had to fish out a dead squirrel from the pool before we jumped in! Crazy innocent times.

  14. Charles on said:

    I’m glad I took photos of it in 9-2008…Somehow I missed hearing about the fire and destruction…was hoping the building would be restored.

  15. H F Bosch on said:

    Brings back memories. Born in 1927, I grew up in San Francisco. I vividly remember using the bath house and swimming in the pool with my brothers and sisters. In fact, if I can find them, I have some photos of this event taken by my mom’s Kodak box camera. What hath Time wrot, eh?

  16. Doris Kreig on said:

    Was Fleishhacker Pool in San Francisco heated?

  17. Sheena on said:

    Fleischhacker pool was heated sea water it was a great place to swim in the early and mid ’50s, I spent many a summer there. The Sutro Baths was where I actually learned to swim, it was very unique, it was located almost next door to the Cliff House, the Ice Skating rink was also in the same building all glass and many levels, it seems that our old beautiful city by the bay just couldn’t keep any of it’s very unique and most fascinating and beautiful places, we lost most all of them over time, Playland and the Roller Rink were two more entertainment spaces out there on the Great Highway that were taken over by developers or destroyed by fire, I have pictures of myself and my family at all of them over the years, many happy days at play.

  18. Maria on said:

    I took swimming lessons at the pool in 1956. I think I remember sharing the pool with a water rat or two and recall a water snake swimming around. Was I just imagining things or was this the case?

  19. The pool used ocean water. How was that connected to the Hetch-Hetchy water project, which brought fresh water from Yosemite?

  20. Jonathan H on said:

    Hi Chris, the owner of the land was Spring Valley Water Co., which the city paid for the acquisition of the land.

  21. Geo. Perry on said:

    Chris on September 17, 2017 at 1:49 am said:
    > The pool used ocean water. How was that connected to the Hetch-Hetchy water project, which brought fresh water from Yosemite?

    Symbolically, figuratively. Practicality, hydration. We thirsted, we bathed.

  22. george smith on said:

    Jon H., are you still running this site? I just happened opon it again after a number of years,I left a post around 9 or 10 years ago. I miss this place and the cold weather!! Thanks,George.

  23. Raymond Moreno on said:

    As a child I swam in that ceaspool it was filthy. Why I swam in it I cannot explain. However, those of us that did, must have very strong immune systems.

  24. David Dyer on said:

    I grew up in SF and my mom would gather us up and go swimming, it was so much fun. Let’s not forget about Playland. those were the day’s. This all happened in the early and mid 60’s. I’m 62 y/o now and I still drive from my home in Santa Rosa to Ocean Beach and It felt strange to drive in the parking lot where the pool once stood, oh the memories.

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