The history of public pools in Iowa City shows swimming hasn’t always been accessible

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

As summer comes to an end, the pool in City Park reaches a milestone — 70 years of service to Iowa Citians looking to float, dog paddle or simply cope with the heat.

But if everything had gone according to the original plan, the pool would have opened in the summer of 1942, and it would now be celebrating 76 years of service. Of course, when that plan was written in 1941, no one knew the Japanese Imperial Navy would attack Pearl Harbor in December.

World War II slowed — almost stopped — the effort to build Iowa City’s first public pool. It would take a local tragedy to motivate city officials to finish the project.

Neither of Iowa City’s other two public pools have such dramatic origins as City Park Pool, but both have somewhat complicated backstories. The history of public pools in Iowa City involves a death, a fire, beaches that weren’t exactly beaches and a “non-opening ceremony.” And, of course, there was also the Big Dipper.

But at the heart of this story are certain unspoken assumptions past city leaders made about the people who use public pools, and questions about whether those assumptions have finally changed.

For the first 84 years after Iowa City was founded in 1839, almost everyone who wanted to swim headed to the river. Dangerous? Often. Dirty? Usually. But there wasn’t much of an alternative for average people. Of course, the rich had their own resources — the first private pool in Iowa City was constructed at the home of Willard F. Main in 1895. (Main, who started what’s believed to be the first jewelry and watch factory west of the Mississippi, was probably never as rich as he appeared to be. In 1911, he was forced into involuntary bankruptcy by creditors who accused him of fraud.)

There were efforts to make river swimming a better experience. In 1902, a group of imaginative swimmers declared the sand that had built up along the river at the foot of Davenport Street was a beach. People flocked there. But in 1906, the new Burlington Street Dam ruined the swimming spot.

The sand at the foot of Prentiss Street became the next beach-like “it” spot, but swimmers entered the river wherever they found an accommodating slope. The Iowa City Chamber of Commerce established the “Black Springs Beach” at the south end of Rocky Shore Drive (where Crandic Park is now) in 1920. It had a refreshment stand, a slide and a raft anchored in the river for swimmers to rest on. The chamber even hired a lifeguard. The beach had to be reestablished each summer, after being submerged by high river levels each spring, but the chamber stopped rebuilding it after two years, because the Big Dipper opened.

The Iowa City Natatorium and Amusement Company (ICNA Co.) never actually built a natatorium — a building with a pool inside — but in 1923, it opened the Big Dipper, a 120-by-80-foot outdoor pool. The Big Dipper is often misremembered as the first pool in City Park. Because it was owned and operated by a for-profit company, the pool couldn’t be built on city property. So, INCA Co. built it just beyond the western boundary of the park.

The Big Dipper opened on Aug. 1, 1923. Admission was 30 cents for adults ($4.50 in 2019 dollars) and 10 cents ($1.50) for kids under 12. There were four diving boards, and various family friendly features (“THE USE OF PROFANITY IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN,” the pool’s rules warned in all caps), but it was the cleanliness of the water ICNA Co. emphasized at the beginning.

“Water at the Big Dipper is of the purest,” the Press-Citizen wrote three days before the pool opened. “It comes from the pool’s own well,” i.e., not the river.

“The water is tested constantly by the state board of health laboratory,” the article continued. That claim seems unlikely, but every P-C story on the Big Dipper reads like the paper was just reprinting a company press release.

Philip Runia swims at City Park Pool in Iowa City. — Rebecca Bright/Little Village

As with the location of the pool, memories of when it finally closed have gotten foggy over the years. Most accounts — written decades later — say the Big Dipper closed after 10 or 15 years. But events at the pool are mentioned in newspapers through the summer of 1940.

Of course, the Big Dipper didn’t satisfy all of Iowa City’s swimming needs. People still swam in the river. And by the 1930s, there was a movement to build a public pool.

The 1920s and ’30s saw a boom in public pool construction across the United States. Every self-respecting city was either building or planning pools, often with the help of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency responsible for the construction of many public buildings during the Great Depression.

In 1941, the Iowa City Council decided to build a pool in City Park, and asked the public to approve a $62,500 bond issue to pay for the pool in that year’s September election. The bond was easily approved. Everything seemed on schedule to complete the pool in less than a year.

Then the war came.

World War II diverted resources, reduced available manpower and drove up the cost of building materials. The bond was successfully issued, the money was banked, but very little progress was made. In 1944, a committee finally decided on the site in City Park where the pool would be built. That was about it.

It wasn’t until 1946, a year after the war ended, that the city seriously took up the pool again. By then the construction cost estimate had increased to $100,000. The city council balked at spending an additional $40,000. The 1941 bond money stayed in the bank, the project remained stalled.

It took a tragedy to kick-start completion of the pool. The Iowa River surged over its banks in the late spring of 1947. On June 5, 10-year-old Keith Howell and a friend decided to play in a flooded part of lower City Park. Keith couldn’t swim; neither could his friend.

Keith climbed onto a log floating in shallow water. The log floated into deeper water. Keith fell off. His friend shouted for help. A park worker called the fire department. But it was too late.

Keith’s death dominated the front page of the next day’s Daily Iowan, which even featured a ghoulish photo of his lifeless body. At the top of the front page was an editorial, “How Much Is a Child’s Life Worth?”

The Daily Iowan reports on the drowning of Keith Howell in City Park, June 6, 1947. — University of Iowa Libraries archive

The editorial called on the city to spend the extra $40,000 to build the long-planned pool, so children would have a safe place to learn to swim.

“Mr. and Mrs. Iowa City, could your child swim if he were suddenly faced with a life-and-death struggle in the water?” editor R. Bruce Hughes wrote. “How much would it be worth to you to know at least he would have the chance Keith Howell didn’t?”

The DI launched a campaign to get the pool built. Community-wide fundraising efforts began. The city council relented, and a new bond issue was put on the ballot that fall. It passed.

City Park Pool opened on June 11, 1949. Admission was 40 cents for adults ($4.30 in today’s money), and 15 cents ($1.61) for children. According to the DI, 1,100 people visited the pool on opening day. The final cost of the project was $130,000 — the 2019 equivalent of about $1.4 million.

The pool at Robert A. Lee Recreation Center was the next to open. The building was known as the Community Center when it debuted in 1964. Robert A. Lee was the city’s recreation superintendent at the time, like he was when the previous pool-less Community Center at the same location was gutted by a fire in 1955. Lee worked hard to ensure the new Community Center could accommodate almost every kind of recreational activity. That meant including some features that have since been removed — the building had a gun range for a while — and an important one that’s still here 55 years later: an indoor pool.

Iowa City’s only other public pool is also indoors, but Mercer Park originally had an outdoor pool.

By the mid-1960s, Iowa City’s population had grown so much — from almost 27,000 when City Park pool opened in 1949 to over 41,000 — there were concerns that one outdoor and one indoor pool weren’t enough. What was needed, city leaders decided, was another pool that combined the outdoors with the indoors.

The Mercer Park pool project was a collaboration between the Iowa City Community School District and the City of Iowa City. Plans called for an outdoor pool that could be covered by a movable “plastic bubble.” The bubble, combined with a heating system, would create a pool where “all-weather swimming” was possible. The city put up most of the money. Everyone was confident of success. They shouldn’t have been.

The pool was scheduled to open “early in the summer” of 1968. It didn’t: construction delays, the city said. On July 27, City Manager Frank R. Smiley announced the pool might open in early August. It didn’t: mechanical difficulties, the city said. On Aug. 11, there was an official “non-opening ceremony” for the pool. Robert A. Lee, now acting director of the Parks and Recreation Department, told reporters, “I hope the pool will be open soon.”

When the pool opened for its first full season in 1969, there was still no plastic bubble or bubble-related heating system.

What started badly, ended badly. By 1985, the bubble-less Mercer Park pool was in such poor shape, the city closed it permanently.

The city and the school district then joined together again for Mercer Park pool 2.0. This time they ensured it provided all-weather swimming by putting the pool inside a building. The Mercer Park Aquatic Center opened in 1988.

The history of public pools in America is complicated. Pools, like other public facilities, embody the accepted social norms of their times. Pools that were points of civic pride in the 1920s and ’30s seemed like threats to public order to the people in charge of some cities, as courts struck Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of those cities closed their pools, rather than allow everyone equal access.

Nothing so crude as that happened in Iowa City. But its pools are also the product of certain unexamined social divisions.

Discussions about what “accessibility” meant during planning for the pools in City and Mercer parks largely focused on parking. The “public” city leaders had in mind when planning those pools was one that could afford cars. The families city leaders envisioned happily swimming were ones with parents who had enough money and free time to drive their kids to a pool.

Iowa City’s three public pools. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

In 1949, 1964, 1968 and 1988, Iowa City had a woefully inadequate public transit system. It still does. If you don’t own a car, navigating the city can be inconvenient, if not exhausting. It’s not the sort of experience that encourages people to use public recreation facilities. That’s not the fault of the Parks and Recreation Department, it’s just a reality.

Parks and Recreation is aware of the inequality of opportunity in Iowa City. As part of the “Gather Here” Parks Master Plan approved by the city council in 2017, the department undertook an analysis of how its resources are distributed in order to plan how to address the discrepancies in opportunities throughout the city.

At the direction of the city council, planning initially focused on neighborhood park space needs for the next 15 to 20 years.

“The plan did not address athletic facilities, recreation centers, or swimming facilities,” Park and Recreation Director Juli Seydell Johnson told Little Village in an email. “We hope to complete a public input and planning process for these areas in 2020 or 2021.”

That public input process should be interesting. Iowa City has seen a population increase of more than 60 percent since it added a third public pool in 1968. Are three pools still enough? If not, what happens during the planning process? Will the city rely on the same sort of assumptions about who the public for a pool is that it used in the past? Or seven decades after City Park Pool opened, is it time for a different approach?

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director. He does not currently own a bathing suit. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.

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