Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arnold Brunner's 1905 11th Street Public Baths -- 538 East 11th Street

Water-themed designs like porpoises surrounding the cartouches and Neptune's tridents decorate the facade -- photo by Alice Lum
As the 19th century drew to a close and the city’s poor crowded into cramped tenements, the problem of bathing was increasingly serious.  In the Lower East Side in 1896 there was one bathtub for every 79 families.

Half a century earlier the public had demanded action by the city.  By the time of the Civil War middle- and upper-class families in New York had begun bathing regularly, as the Europeans did.  But the lower classes had no means to bathe.  By 1858 the Committee for Free Public Baths had been formed, but nothing would be done about the situation for decades.

Even after the New York Senate passed a law on April 21, 1895 requiring that all first and second class cities create free public bathing facilities, Manhattan’s first bath did not open until 1901; governmental red tape miring the process.

Following the opening of the Rivington Street baths on the Lower East Side in 1901, the project gained momentum.   In 1903 the City bought two lots at 538-540 East 11th Street in the Tomkins Square neighborhood which was populated mainly by German immigrants.  Architect Arnold Brunner was commissioned to design a public baths.  Construction was completed in 1905.

The first years of the 20th century were marked by the City Beautiful Movement.  The philosophy behind it was that imposing, monumental structures would inspire citizens to behave consistently with their surroundings.  Brunner’s baths would follow that viewpoint—a gleaming white Italian Renaissance structure with splashes of Beaux Arts ornamentation.  Situated among the dark brown brick tenement buildings, it shimmered like a pearl.  The building, constructed of Indiana limestone, cost the city $102,989.

The Bureau of City Betterment of the Citizens’ Union of the City of New York had laid out their instructions for proper public baths:

1  * People’s baths houses should look and be clean, feel warm, smell sweet and be quiet and orderly.
2. * Bathing is a means of safeguarding the public welfare by the prevention of disease and by the raising of the standard of personal cleanliness and morality.
*  By the maintenance of free public baths universal bathing is more nearly and most economically accomplished.

The 11th Street Baths followed these principals.  There were two separate entrances; one for males and one for females.  No proper Victorian would have mixed the sexes even in the lobby.    There were 94 rain baths (today called “showers”), 67 for men and 27 for the women; and seven bathtubs, two for men and 5 for women.   Bathers would bring their own towels and soap.  Privacy was an important factor and each stall had its own changing room.  Each person was allowed 20 minutes to bathe.

Male and female patrons had totally separate facilities -- "Modern Baths and Bath Houses" 1908 (copyright expired)
William Paul Gerhard, in his 1908 book “Modern Baths and Bath Houses,” noted that the 11th Street Bath was “the only bath in which the generally insufficient city water pressure on the second floor is taken into consideration, and in which provision is accordingly made for pressure and air tanks, supplied from steam pumps and air compressors.”

Privacy was assured by individual shower stalls, each with its own dressing area -- "Modern Baths and Bath Houses" 1908 (copyright expired)
The first summer after the baths opened was insufferably hot.   On the last day of June 1906 14 people died of the heat and The New York Times reported “it was the hottest June since 1901.”  The indigent poor in the Tompkins Square neighborhood suffered.  The newspaper noted “The east side, which has always been the worst sufferer in hot waves, again supplied the biggest number of heat cases yesterday.”   To escape the heat people sought the cooling waters of the Public Baths.

“At the Eleventh Street baths people stood in lines four deep,” reported The Times.  “By and by the crush became so great that, despite the eighty-seven sprays and numerous tubs…the police reserves had to be called to preserve order.  The lines broke, and as each batch came out of the baths two or three hundred rushed to get in.  Order was finally evolved by the police and it was not necessary to make any arrests.”

The public school system used the baths, as well.  With no bathing facilities in students’ homes, shower baths were installed in public schools to promote personal cleanliness.  In 1917 the Board of Education’s Annual Report noted “The public bath is located in 11th street near Avenue B.  This bath supplements nicely our school shower baths and enable us to reserve the latter for pupils of the intermediate or lower grades.”

In March of 1926 The Times remarked on the success of the city’s system of 15 public baths.  “Tenants in houses that were reared along about the time when the only tub in town was the celebrated marble affair in the late mansion of the Vanderbilts, are using the city-owned showers and pools three or four times a week instead of once or twice.” 

Despite the newspaper’s optimistic attitude, it was obvious to the city that the poor were using the public baths to keep cool rather than clean.  Patronage fell sharply off during the winter months.

Gradually, private bathrooms were installed even in the tenement houses and the need for the free public baths eroded.  By the middle of the century, only three public baths were in operation in the city, one of which was East 11th Street.  Although in 1958 131,000 persons used the three baths, the city closed the 11th Street and 109th Street baths in money-saving move.

Brunner’s miniature limestone palazzo sat neglected for three years, then it was sold in 1961 and converted into a parking garage.  The steps into the arched men’s and women’s entrances were removed and ramps installed to enable cars to drive in.  As the neighborhood declined in the next decade, with Tompkins Square park becoming a notorious drug center, the baths building became a warehouse.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams and his wife Alyssa purchased the building in 1995.  It was converted into a photography studio, the grimy fa├žade cleaned and replacement gates to the arched entrances installed.

Car ramps that replaced the entrance steps of the two outside arches are still evident -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite the abuse suffered by the 11th Street Public Baths in the last half of the 20th century, it emerged as “a highly intact example” of Arnold Brunner’s work, as described by the Landmark Preservation Commission.  It is an attractive reminder of a time in New York City when the simply task of taking a bath was difficult for many.

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