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Wayne's long-ago pool made historic splash by Jeff Price

Wayne's long-ago pool made historic splash by Jeff Price

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Published by thereadingshelf
Wayne Natatorium
Wayne Natatorium

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Published by: thereadingshelf on May 03, 2008
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889 Words September 27, 2006 Wayne's long-ago pool made historic splash Preserving the memory of a wonder

of its day. By Jeff Price Inquirer Staff Writer1 Over the years, memories of the famous, but short-lived, Wayne Natatorium of 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 the historic preservation business know that although the pool - which was just north of the Main Line tracks near the heart of town - is long gone, concrete evidence of its existence survives: a residence at 228 Willow Ave. that was once its clubhouse. Now there is a move afoot to let everyone in on the secret of what once was one of Wayne's biggest attractions, a 500-foot-long, 100-foot-wide inground outdoor pool that hosted swimming championships and drew athletes from as far away as California. Earlier this month, Beverlee Barnes, chairwoman of the Radnor Township Historical and Architectural Review Board, was out walking along Willow Avenue, which in 1895 was likely the pool's spectator viewing platform. As Barnes took notes, she imagined the reaction of someone learning that the modest detached and twin houses are sitting on a historic site: "Wow! A block-long swimming pool in what is now all-residential Wayne. Pretty fascinating." Barnes had been inspired by e-mails sent by three anonymous citizens, one encouraging her not to let Radnor forget "the historic Wayne Natatorium." So Barnes, touring the area with Ted Pollard, president of the Radnor Historical Society, was working "to document whatever is here to tell the story for future generations." The most likely actions, she said, are to add the two-story clubhouse, which housed 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 historical marker. "Now there is no ordinance in place that would protect this house from being altered or demolished," she said, but once the property is added to the survey, it could someday be protected by a historic preservation ordinance. Just last month the house changed hands, and Mary Giovanni of Wayne Realty said yesterday 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, Barnes said, because that prestigious list "is only interested in places that totally exist now."

What is gone but what must have been an inspiring sight was a pool the length of nearly two football fields and more than half the width. Eight feet deep at the clubhouse end and 2 feet deep at its shallowest, the pool was fed by the adjacent Gulph Creek. The source of the pool's water supply - filtered creek water and springs in the area - was also the source of its demise after less than 10 years. According to newspaper articles by local historians, some dating to more than 50 years ago, the pool was the inspiration of local businessmen who issued stock in the Wayne Natatorium Association. Each $25 certificate was good for a year's membership. They hired an architect and a builder. The pool was constructed with a boardwalk on the south side and benches for spectators on the north side and a tall wooden fence all around. In addition to the clubhouse, a smaller men's locker room was built about halfway down the north side. There is no evidence that structure has survived. The opening in July 1895 was much anticipated. Swimmers from the New York Athletic Club and from Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Camden joined those from the Philadelphia Swimming Association, the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College. The pool became the site of several annual national swimming championships, 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 the mile. He went on to coach at Penn. Kistler must have taught youngsters the Australian crawl, which was a new racing stroke. The pool was doubly successful because it served as a splendid ice-skating rink during winters. What could go wrong? According to the historians, a drought around the turn of the century forced the local water company to drill artesian wells. Those, coupled with the drought, brought stream levels down to the point that algae fouled the water. Golf and bicycling, just becoming popular at the turn of the century, were complicating factors, siphoning off many swim enthusiasts. So, after a few bad years, the pool was closed, water drained, and the land sold in 1903. About 1905, houses began going up on what is now the south side of Willow, burying forever the Radnor wonder. Barnes, who also heads the preservation section of the Delaware County Planning Department, believes the natatorium is "an interesting social history chapter" in Radnor that should not be lost. "Wayne was one of the earliest commuter suburbs," she said of its relationship with Philadelphia about 125 years ago. "Commuting to work from home was a big deal, and living outside the city was a big deal. Recreation was an important part of that."

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