Posts Tagged ‘Public Baths New York City’

When a public bathhouse opened on West 60th Street

December 5, 2022

By 1906, New York City had six free municipal-run public bathhouses operating throughout Manhattan. The seventh, at 232 West 60th Street—in a rough tenement enclave between 10th and 11th Avenues—formally opened its doors in June of that year.

A ceremony led by William H. Walker, superintendent of buildings, included a number of speeches. But “before the last orator had said his last word, a young army of West Side youth rushed for the plunges,” according to a New York Times article that covered opening day.

When the word was finally given to admit the 50 or so waiting boys, “there was a great rush, and in less than a minute the boys had undressed, donned their trunks, and were splashing about in the tank,” wrote the New-York Tribune.

Of course the kids wanted to get inside on that June afternoon. Behind the Beaux Arts-style limestone and brick exterior—featuring two terra cotta sea creatures with their tails entwined—was an upstairs bathhouse offering 80 showers (aka, “rain baths”) as well as something new and special: a ground-floor 35 by 60-foot “plunge,” or swimming pool.

Now, at the dawn of the Progressive Era, people residing on either side of West 60th Street—the mostly Irish Hell’s Kitchen to the south, and the now-defunct African-American San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north—had a place not just to cool down in hot weather, but to bathe all year round.

Even though the Tenement Act of 1901 mandated that all tenement apartment units have bathing facilities, many people occupying older tenements still lived without a bathtub. In the early 1900s around West 60th Street, “a majority of homes lacked indoor plumbing,” states NYC Parks.

The 60th Street public bath was one of 20 public bathhouses across four boroughs constructed in the early 20th century. This bathhouse-building on the part of Progressive reformers capped a series of initiatives dating back to the late 19th century that called for improved hygiene and sanitation: on city streets, in public buildings, and of people themselves.

“Government acceptance of its duty to provide for the cleanliness of citizens was what the reformers had been hoping for; they believed, as Jacob Riis wrote in his 1902 book Battle With the Slum, that soap and water were ‘moral agents of the first value in the slum,'” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2014 New York Times column.

The showers were not unpopular, but the pool may have been the main attraction. It could hold 250 people, featured a supply of continuously filtered water, and offered women-only swimming three days a week, per the New-York Tribune. (The sexes were rigidly separated, with distinct doors for males and females even at the main entrance, as the second image shows.)

While the place was packed in the summer, wintertime use wasn’t very high. “Robert E. Todd of the Bureau of Municipal Research found in 1907 that bathhouse patronage in the winter months fell to as little as 4 percent of capacity,” wrote Gray.

“The increased use of the baths in warm weather indicated to him that most people visited not for regular bathing, but to cool off,” he continued. “In Todd’s opinion, the need for personal cleanliness was felt more by reformers than by the poor and working class; adoption would be trickle-down.”

Within a matter of years, the 60th Street public bath, like others across the city, began to outlive their original purposes. More tenements were outfitted with bathtubs and showers, and the pool increasingly became a place for swim meets and competitions.

By the 1940s, its days as a public bathhouse were over. At some point one of the entrances was renovated into a window; the tenement next door fell to the wrecking ball.

In 2016, the bathhouse reopened as part of the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, which features not just swimming facilities but state-of-the-art fitness rooms and a new building addition.

Who was Gertrude Ederle? This West Side daughter of a butcher became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. Ederle was born in 1906—the same year the bathhouse that now bears her name opened its doors to kids like her.

[Third image: MCNY, 1925: X2010.11.6142; fifth image, 1939-1941: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects 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 practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY; fifth image: MCNY; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

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:

A posh Nolita alley’s rough and tumble past

April 19, 2012

Centre Market Place is a charming New York alley that’s easy to miss.

It’s just a one-block sliver of pavement behind the old Police Headquarters (now a luxurious residence) on Centre Street.

The alley is all very contemporary Nolita, with brightly painted townhouses topping expensive boutiques. But for the past 150 years or so, it was just another crowded strip in a poor stretch of the East Side.

It’s a block now mostly scrubbed clean of its rougher edges, which included a public bath at number nine on the Broome Street end.

Called the People’s Bath House and built by a private charity in the 1890s, it used to be crowded with mostly Italian immigrant tenement dwellers.

The site where it once stood is now an empty lot.

Centre Market Place also had an illustrious resident in the 1930s: crime photographer Weegee.

His one-room apartment, perfectly located near all the police action, was at number five.

A gritty industry thrived on the street as well: guns. Several gun shops were located there through much of the 20th century, fueled by the NYPD.

The gun dealers are gone, but the sign (below) still exists at number seven for Sile, a gun distributor with a branch in Brescia, Italy.