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The Wayne Natatorium

The Wayne Natatorium

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Published by: thereadingshelf on Mar 13, 2008
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10/17/2010

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Wayne's Long-Ago Pool Made Historic Splash: Preserving the Memory of a Wonder ofIts DayPosted on: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 03:00 CDTBy Jeff Price, The Philadelphia InquirerSep. 27--Over the years, memories of the famous, but short-lived, Wayne Natatoriumof the late 1800s have been stoked by nostalgic newspaper articles.The largest pool in the United States! Maybe in the world!Yet Wayne has little to show for those remembrances. And few people outside thehistoric preservation business know that although the pool -- which was just northof the Main Line tracks near the heart of town -- is long gone, concrete evidenceof its existence survives: a residence at 228 Willow Ave. that was once itsclubhouse.Now there is a move afoot to let everyone in on the secret of what once was one ofWayne's biggest attractions, a 500-foot-long, 100-foot-wide inground outdoor poolthat hosted swimming championships and drew athletes from as far away asCalifornia.Earlier this month, Beverlee Barnes, chairwoman of the Radnor Township Historicaland Architectural Review Board, was out walking along Willow Avenue, which in 1895was likely the pool's spectator viewing platform.As Barnes took notes, she imagined the reaction of someone learning that themodest detached and twin houses are sitting on a historic site: "Wow! A block-longswimming pool in what is now all-residential Wayne. Pretty fascinating."Barnes had been inspired by e-mails sent by three anonymous citizens, oneencouraging her not to let Radnor forget "the historic Wayne Natatorium." SoBarnes, touring the area with Ted Pollard, president of the Radnor HistoricalSociety, was working "to document whatever is here to tell the story for futuregenerations."The most likely actions, she said, are to add the two-story clubhouse, whichhoused the women's locker room and the office and apartment of the pool manager,to the township's 2003 Historical Resource Survey and to install a historicalmarker."Now there is no ordinance in place that would protect this house from beingaltered or demolished," she said, but once the property is added to the survey, itcould someday be protected by a historic preservation ordinance.Just last month the house changed hands, and Mary Giovanni of Wayne Realty saidyesterday that new owner Brian Hipwell has begun a renovation that will be"beautiful" when finished.Even so, entry on the National Register of Historic Places is unlikely, Barnessaid, because that prestigious list "is only interested in places that totallyexist now."What is gone but what must have been an inspiring sight was a pool the length ofnearly two football fields and more than half the width. Eight feet deep at theclubhouse end and 2 feet deep at its shallowest, the pool was fed by the adjacentGulph Creek.
 
The source of the pool's water supply -- filtered creek water and springs in thearea -- was also the source of its demise after less than 10 years.According to newspaper articles by local historians, some dating to more than 50years ago, the pool was the inspiration of local businessmen who issued stock inthe Wayne Natatorium Association. Each $25 certificate was good for a year'smembership.They hired an architect and a builder. The pool was constructed with a boardwalkon the south side and benches for spectators on the north side and a tall woodenfence all around. In addition to the clubhouse, a smaller men's locker room wasbuilt about halfway down the north side. There is no evidence that structure hassurvived.The opening in July 1895 was much anticipated. Swimmers from the New York AthleticClub and from Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Camden joined those from thePhiladelphia Swimming Association, the University of Pennsylvania and SwarthmoreCollege. The pool became the site of several annual national swimmingchampionships, the first of which was held in the month after the opening.Swimming coaches were hired. One, Gary Kistler, was a world-class swimmer in themile. He went on to coach at Penn. Kistler must have taught youngsters theAustralian crawl, which was a new racing stroke.The pool was doubly successful because it served as a splendid ice-skating rinkduring winters.What could go wrong?According to the historians, a drought around the turn of the century forced thelocal water company to drill artesian wells. Those, coupled with the drought,brought stream levels down to the point that algae fouled the water. Golf andbicycling, just becoming popular at the turn of the century, were complicatingfactors, siphoning off many swim enthusiasts.So, after a few bad years, the pool was closed, water drained, and the land soldin 1903. About 1905, houses began going up on what is now the south side ofWillow, burying forever the Radnor wonder.Barnes, who also heads the preservation section of the Delaware County PlanningDepartment, believes the natatorium is "an interesting social history chapter" inRadnor that should not be lost."Wayne was one of the earliest commuter suburbs," she said of its relationshipwith Philadelphia about 125 years ago. "Commuting to work from home was a bigdeal, and living outside the city was a big deal. Recreation was an important partof that."Contact staff writer Jeff Price at 610-313-8124 or jprice@phillynews.com.-----Copyright (c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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