The Preservation Arts

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve written quite a bit – and, I think, with passion – about the need to preserve and protect our cultural heritage as it relates to watershapes (click here, for one recent example).  There are plenty of grand public pools, classic fountains and even some architecturally significant residential watershapes that could use the support – all of which has led me to urge watershapers to get involved in efforts to save and restore their local aquatic patrimonies.

My commitment to this concept is why something happening in the United Kingdom caught my eye recently.   In the Guardian’s “Swimming Blog,” mention was made of a new group and its approach to protecting culturally significant swimming pools perceived to be at risk and subject to closure or, worse, demolition.

The blogger, Jenny Landreth, has made a point of calling attention to what she calls “pools under threat,” which can’t be the happiest of pursuits in a country where there are lots of what we in the United States would call aquatic antiquities – many of them built around the turn of the last century and showing every bit of their hundred-plus years of age.

Long story short, in one of her latest blogs she noted the rise of a new, volunteer-run organization called the Historic Pools Network.  “Membership is open to pools across Britain, with a main focus on pre-1939 establishments.  Being under one umbrella means a pooling (sorry) of energy and resources; it’s less lonely and has potentially more impact.

The group’s goals, she continued, include preserving architectural features, promoting and managing older pools, bidding for and securing grants and establishing effective partnerships – and she makes the organization’s case beautifully:

Pools have a terrific and elemental hold over people, and not just the beauties; the great hulking brutes engender the same feeling.  Specific loyalty broadens out into a general concern:  I’m never going to regularly swim in Moseley Road baths or Manchester’s Victoria baths, but I want them to survive for reasons beyond “that’s a shame.”

I also think that we should campaign to keep the buildings and their purpose. Preserving a library building, for instance, is all well and good on architectural terms.  Preserving the “library” part itself seems to be as integral.  If you keep the building but close the pool, forgetting what it’s for, that goes in my “loss” column.

Public pools are a vital part of successful communal identity; important to our well-being in a wider sense than simply encouraging physical activity. Oh and yeah – our children should swim.

As I’ve mentioned, here in the United States we have the National Register of Historic Places and value the role it plays in preserving treasures including Lawrence Halprin’s wonderful fountains in Portland, Ore., and countless other cultural treasures.  But NRHP is a large, slow-moving entity, and I fear that the sheer volume of what it has to deal with on a nationwide basis makes it less immediately responsive to specific local interests in cases where big names and obvious landmarks aren’t the subjects of concern.

What chance does a “great, hulking brute” of a swimming facility have when ordered alongside beautiful fountains, treasured architecture and manifestly historic spaces?

If you belong to or know of an organization with goals similar to the Historic Pools Network here in the United States, please do let me know by commenting below.  It seems to me, in these days when maintaining large, dated pool facilities is overwhelmingly costly, that this might be an idea whose time has necessarily come.

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