New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

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8 Responses to “New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire”

  1. 1 – New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire Says:

    […] Source:https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/new-yorks-old-public-bath-buildings-still-inspire/ […]

  2. Zoe Says:

    Dear Ephemeral — the Eleventh St. public bathhouse shown was/is between what & what? (Aves.). I lived down the street but apparently did not look *up* enough to read the building inscriptions.

    The Tenth Street Baths (Russian on E. 10th) is still there: but I guess because it was/is privately owned it’s not in this category.

    This post of yours brings to mind the bathtubs in kitchens that freak non-locals out when they visit studio apts. on the LES & in The Kitchen (Hell’s Kitchen) etc. (I imagine most of those are gone due to gentrification). Also those forays into tenement hallways to use the toilet (‘water closet’… no sink) when I visited people on the LES even as late as the 1990s. I used to spend an astonishing amount of time in bathrooms so this would have been impossible for me! I used to search & search until I found the lowest rent WITH a full bath. I had a place in Park Slope w/ just a shower (“rain bath”!) once & that was not good.

    Can we call showers “rain baths” again Ephemeral? 🙂

    My mum went to a public baths in Berlin in the 20s & 30s but only to take the Sauna (which is/was more popular there — though still originating in Finland). Like people still do at the Tenth Street baths (E.10th LES/NYC).

    She said there was a man employed whose sole responsibility (?) it was to call people down from the stepped seats where they sat after only looking at the colour of their face to see if they were there too long. (As one can die from heat stroke & they are not always able to judge properly for themselves).

    I love NYC history about bathing & also trash (NYC ‘trash’ exhibit at 5th Ave. Public Library in the 1990s was fascinating!). Both encompassed within the 19th/20th centuries public ‘hygiene’ movement in the City.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Zoe! I like “rain bath” too. The 11th Street baths is between A and B on the south side of the street. It’s remarkably well preserved and I believe has been owned by a photographer who uses it as a studio.

  4. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    Your readers might enjoy my piece about an extant structure on East 38th St that served the same needs: http://newyorkwanderer.com/the-great-unwashed/

    • Zoe Says:

      I’ve just read your article Ben — it’s very interesting. When wealthy people set up endowment funds for specific purposes they often outlive the original purpose when it becomes obsolete & the funds must then be redirected to something *similar*. This happened w/ a sanitorium in Providence. (Yet another facet of the hygiene movement). I wish I could get a better look at the photos accompanying your article — as I was looking at them on my phone. Thanks for providing the link 🙂

      • Zoe Says:

        *I’m sorry — I meant to write ‘Benjamin’. I think I saw ‘Ben’ written on your website that you linked.

  5. Timothy Grier Says:

    As a kid in the fifities and sixties I swam at the East 23rd Street Public Baths facility pool. It’s now the Asser Levy Recreation Center and still has the same pools so it hasn’t really changed that much.

  6. yorkvilleresident Says:

    I swam in that pool on 23rd street, too. It was called Asser Levy back then, too. Plus, if you recall, there was an indoor pool that was in operation back then.

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