A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

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6 Responses to “A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed””

  1. Lady G. Says:

    I love that stately, turn-of-the-century buildings are still standing. They’re masterfully and intricately designed compared to the bland and stark modern buildings.

  2. Benjamin Feldman Says:

    And on East 38th Street yet another palimpsest stands of the days when the Gas House district was filled with cold water tenements whose residents bathed here:
    http://newyorkwanderer.com/the-great-unwashed/

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    When you look at the floor plans of most housing until the 1930s, you realize why they needed public baths…New York neighborhoods were wiped out by various diseases and fires.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, don’t forget the “lung blocks” of Lower Manhattan, where so many residents had tuberculosis.

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