Every city has its heartbreaking “used-to-be” jewels — Art Deco band shells, ornate theaters, towering elm groves that now draw wistful sighs in nursing homes.
Praise Neptune! Lansing’s stone-ringed J.H. Moores Memorial Natatorium, the oldest public pool of its kind in the nation, is still alive with splashes, a turquoise oval oasis nestled into the wooded east slope of venerable Moores Park.
It’s a good thing the 1922 pool is to open this week: It would break Tegan Baiocchi’s heart to talk about it in the past tense. Instead, the architectural historian and “Bintz pool” fanatic will happily lead a tour of a living city gem Thursday.
What´s a Bintz pool? Baiocchi is the one to ask. She tracks them across the country like other people chase dinosaur bones.
“Normally, when you think of a public swimming pool, you think of a plastic rectangle or a hole in the ground,” she said. “These are real public buildings, public art.”
After building the Moores Park pool, Wesley Bintz, Lansing’s city engineer in the 1920s, parlayed its compact onepiece design (usually ovoid in shape) into a national phenomenon. From 1920 to 1950, over 120 Bintz pools sprang up across the country, from Massachusetts to Oklahoma. The words “Wesley Bintz Swimming Pool Designs, Lansing, Michigan,” or a variant thereof, is etched in bronze on every one of them.
Bintz patented the design, quit his job with the city and started his own design firm. The nation was going nuts over public recreation — Calvin Coolidge made speeches about the benefits of exercise — and Bintz pools were the hot franchise for cooling off.
Bintz described his design as an upended straw hat, with the water in the middle, the deck all around and the bathhouse under the “brim.” With little or no excavation and lower construction costs, advertisements for his company boasted a 25 percent to 40 percent savings.
For the cities and towns that built a Bintz, the pools were also points of aesthetic pride.
Baiocchi chuckles when other communities with Bintz pools use the word “unique,” but Lansing’s pool really is.
By her count, there are at least 19 Bintz pools still standing, of which eight are still operating as of last year. Moores Park is the oldest in both categories. What’s more, it’s built into the side of a hill, with an observation area — the only Bintz pool so situated, as far as she knows. All the others are free standing.
“It´s just an awesome space, used really well,” Baiocchi said.
The Moores Park pool was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Lansing parks director Brett Kaschinske doesn´t wax poetic (he calls the mini-fountains at Moores Park where kids love to cavort “spray devices.”), but the pool’s exquisite setting nudged even him to rhapsodize.
“When you get up on top of the bleachers, and you’re looking to the west over the pool, and you have the Moores River dam there and the power plant, it’s a special place and a great view,” Kaschinske said. “Lansing residents should be proud that their city is invested in that pool.”
Every Bintz pool has a story, usually tragic. Among the Bintz pools still in use is the striking World War II Memorial Pool in North Attleboro, Mass., which looks like the fruit of a V-E Day tryst between an aircraft carrier and an Art Deco movie palace. (Bintz donated his services out of respect for the memorial.) Closed and facing demolition, the pool was restored in 2008 by volunteer workers and private donations, one of the few to be resurrected.
As for the rest, you can find amateur ruin porn photo sets and YouTube videos of Bintz pools like the one in Camp Humiston, Ill., closed in 2001, or the Ranlett Park Pool in Andarko, Okla., with comments like “that must have been really cool” and “so sad to see.” Recently, Baiocchi visited the 1925 Anderson Athletic Pool, closed in 2007 owing to neglect and vandalism, and high on the list of “Indiana´s 10 Most Endangered” sites, put out by the Indiana Landmarks group. There are plans to bring it back to life next year.
While trees push through cracks in dry Bintz pools around the country, Kaschinske reported that Lansing’s two pools, Hunter Park and Moores Park, topped 20,000 visits last year for the first time. After a filter was replaced last week, Kaschinske said the Moores Park Pool “passes inspection.”
But the pool still needs about $750,000 worth of fixes and upgrades, by Kaschinske’s reckoning. Amazingly, the water intake and outgo pipes are original from 1922, and peppered with patches.
Kaschinske has a long to-do list. He said the pool needs new fans and other improvements in the dressing rooms and bathrooms. Spider cracks in the concrete need repair. Perimeter lights need work. Sinks in the restrooms need to be modified for the disabled.
The cost of adding access for the disabled was a major obstacle to renovating many Bintz pools across the nation and caused the demise of many, but Moores Park was lucky. Thanks to its hillside setting, a ramp was easy to fold into the design as part of a package of 1979 renovations.
However, disabled people still have to change below the pool and make their way up the ramp to get into the water, so a pool-level restroom would be a boon.
People or businesses interested in helping the pool into its second century are welcome to contact Kaschinske at the city’s parks department or donate money at a crowdsourcing website, gofundme.com.
Historical Society of Greater Lansing
Potluck picnic/tour of Moores Park Pool with architectural historian Tegan Baiocchi 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12 Public welcome; bring dish to pass
Donate to pool renovations at:
gofundme.com/39szj0 or contact Lansing Parks Director Brett Kaschinske, (517) 483-4277