An elegy for a Lower East Side public bathhouse

What remains of the Rutgers Place Public Baths and Gymnasium, built in 1909, is not easy to find.

Surrounded by the tidy LaGuardia Houses on Madison and Jefferson Streets a few blocks from the East River, this crumbling building with its windows blown out and bricked in stands like a phantom from the early 1900s.

This was New York’s progressive era, when the city opened several public bathhouses like this one in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

The point was to give tenement dwellers living in sweltering rooms in crowded areas a place to cool off and shower, in an era when having a shower was not always a given.

It’s hard to imagine the bathhouse as it was in its Beaux-Arts glory, when Rutgers Place was still on the map. A New York Times piece from 1907 announced that it would be built, “with a facade of brick trimmed with granite and terra cotta.”

“It will have a roof garden adorned with Ionic pilasters, supporting an ornamental balustrade and cornice,” the Times continued. “The gymnasium will occupy the top story.”

Besides serving as a bathhouse, the Rutgers Place Baths hosted ball games and track and field. The facility’s pool came in at a sizeable 54 by 24 feet. And just like other city bathhouses, men and women attended on separate days.

As the century went on, public bathhouses lost their appeal. In 1957, the tenement blocks near the Rutgers Place Baths were bulldozed, and the 13-building LaGuardia Houses went up in their place.

When the Baths actually closed isn’t clear, but certainly the derelict building has been left to rot for decades. Now, the city has announced plans to tear it down.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not “structurally sound,” reports Bowery Boogie.

Luckily many of the former public bathhouses built during the same era have been better taken care of and are still in use today—as a recreation center on 54th Street, a photo studio on East 11th Street, and even a church not far away on Allen Street.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1909, x2010.7.2.2446; Fifth photo; 1912, via La Voce Di New York]

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7 Responses to “An elegy for a Lower East Side public bathhouse”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    A sad end to a classic, beautiful looking building. Would’ve loved to seen inside. It looks like it could’ve been turned into something nice also. I can imagine it’s covered in black Mold inside, which would cost a ton to manage. It’s probably best at this point to tear it down.

  2. Femme_Fashion_Forward Says:

    It’s a shame it couldn’t have been saved (though understandably so at this point). It makes me sad to think if how many historic buildings in NYC have been demolished

  3. Tom B Says:

    Am I wrong, I thought the Bath Houses were taken over by Gay men back in 70’s or 80’s?

  4. George Rosado Says:

    With all the homelessness we have.why not rebuild these exciting bathhouse in or cities and convert them into low-income apartments for all ? We keep letting goverment deside what’s best for the people!! I’m just saying…

  5. A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being […]

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