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Spirits Of The Bay: The Aquatic Park Bathhouse

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

The happiest building in San Francisco is the old Municipal Bathhouse at Aquatic Park. Like a child’s beloved toy boat forever setting sail across an imaginary bathtub, this 1937 streamline moderne masterpiece buoys even the most sodden mood. And the fact that this architectural wonder was built by an army of Works Progress Administration workers in the depths of the Depression makes it even more lovable.

The Municipal Bathhouse, now the home of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, was the centerpiece of one of the City’s finest improvement projects: the creation of Aquatic Park. Following a long struggle to keep industry out of Black Point Cove, as it was then called, work on the 34.5-acre park started in 1931 with the construction of the 1,850-foot Municipal Pier. When the city and state’s money ran out in 1935, a San Francisco official traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask for help. The newly created WPA came to the rescue. In early 1936, a group of 782 WPA workers arrived at the waterfront site, including a full team of artists and sculptors. The workers built not only the wondrous bathhouse but also the sea wall and the quarter-mile-long sandy beach.

As the park neared completion in September 1938, the San Francisco Chronicle gushed: “In seven years, at an expense of $1,000,000 [actually $1,500,000], there has been built there in the shadow of old Fort Mason a veritable Shangri-la, something Kublai Khan might have envied for his ‘stately pleasure dome.’… Here is a play center that surpasses anything Del Monte, Santa Barbara or the Los Angeles beaches can boast.”

Aquatic Park’s flagship, the Municipal Bathhouse, was designed by official city architect William Mooser Jr. and his son William Mooser III. The Moosers’ masterpiece is one of our country’s most illustrious examples of the international style of art deco architecture and design called streamline moderne. The concept of “streamlining” originated with industrial designers who eschewed ornamentation in favor of aerodynamic forms. Streamline moderne architecture is characterized by graceful curves, long horizontals and the frequent use of nautical motifs. (In France, where art deco originated, streamline moderne is called style paquebot — or “ocean liner style.”)

With Mooser and Mooser’s bathhouse, the nautical element is particularly striking — and delightful. In the words of a WPA report, “Like a huge ship at its dock … with rounded ends, set back upper stories, porthole windows and ship rails, its resemblance to a luxurious ocean liner is indeed startling.”

The interior of the municipal bathhouse is as memorable as its exterior. Sculptor Beniamino Bufano, African American artist Sargent Johnson and the multitalented muralist Hilaire Hiler (Hiler was also a jazz musician, a psychoanalyst and a theoretician of color) all contributed outstanding artworks to the building’s interior.

Officials expected Aquatic Park to be a focus of the City’s pleasure-seekers and attract huge throngs. But interest in competitive water sports had peaked by the 1930s, and the Bay water proved too cold to attract more than the few hundred hardy members of the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club, swimming groups that formed in the 1870s and still have clubhouses on the cove. (A plan to heat the water by piping hundreds of thousands of gallons of hot water from a PG&E substation in the Marina through the Fort Mason Tunnel and into the cove failed to materialize.) But with or without crowds, the unexpected little beach in the heart of the City, and its invincibly lighthearted building, remain one of San Francisco’s true treasures.

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