Swimming Pools of Yesteryear – The Sutro Baths
You know you’ve created a truly great work when even the ruins are humbling.
Today, if you drive down to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco and clamber down the Seal Rocks to the ocean, you’ll find a small inlet dominated by ruins of concrete and iron that cover tens of thousands of square feet. The ruins are massive in scale, but are slowly and continuously being eaten away by the surging ocean tides.
If you’d had the opportunity to visit the site a century ago, you would be gazing at the Sutro Baths, the largest indoor swimming pool establishment in the world. Built by Adolph Sutro, the one-time mayor of San Francisco, the Baths would have taxed even a modern-day construction team. The structure required 3.5 million board feet of lumber, 100 thousand square feet of glass, 600 tons of iron, and 10 thousand cubic yards of concrete. All of these materials came together in a complex of swimming pools, all under one roof, that held nearly two million gallons of ocean-supplied salt water.
The Sutro Baths featured six saltwater pools and one freshwater pool, accessorized with seven waterslides, 30 swinging rings, and a diving board. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company illuminated the complex of swimming pools by installing more than 800 electric lamps, all powered on site by a boiler that also supplied electricity to pumps, laundries, heating pads, hair driers, and a plethora of other amenities. The Baths were such a sight to behold that even famed inventor Thomas Edison visited the site in 1897 for the purpose of shooting several short films that survive to the present day. Edison had company that day, as the Baths had seating for an audience of 3,700 people, as well as a club house that accommodated an additional 1,100 patrons.
Unfortunately, the Sutro Baths were of such massive scale that keeping them in good operating condition was an equally massively expensive task. They closed in the 1960s and shortly after burned to the ground, leaving only the ruins that tourists can visit today as they struggle to imagine what once was.