One of the worlds' largest swimming pools is in San Francisco's outer-Sunset District not far from Golden Gate Park. On Dec. 1 a suspicious fire caused extensive damage causing city officials to consider demolishing what remains.
Built in 1925 when most of outskirts of San Francisco was sparse farm land and dairies, much of what is now the Sunset and Richmond Districts next to Golden Gate Park was sand dunes. The Western-south edge of the City leading to Daly City and the SF Peninsula was not as developed as it is today. Much of what is the outer parts of the City were built in the 1920's and early 30's before the Great Depression. And, then grew even more in the prosperous boom times after World War II.
Known as Fleishacker Pool, it was over 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide and filled with six million gallons of salt water. A recreational compliment to the adjacent Fleishacker Zoo (which eventually became the San Francisco Zoo) and Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park, the pool served the entire City. The San Francisco Examiner reported that at its peak, the pool and its surroundings would receive over eight million people during its history.
The pool closed in 1971 when a water pipe in the filling system failed. Yet, even more likely it was due to declining attendance as Playland-at-the-Beach also closed during that time. Not long after its closure, Janet Pomeroy the founder of the Recreation for the Handicapped used a portion of the buildings to start her outreach work. In interviews she mentioned those early days at Fleishacker's. Once established Pomeroy eventually moved to a brand-new facility built across from Lake Merced near Skyline Blvd. The Rec. Center for the Handicapped is now officially called The Janet Pomeroy Center for the Handicapped in her honor.
Since that time the massive pool, which required lifeguards in rowboats to watch over the swimmers got filled in and the large parking lot paved over. As reported by the SF Examiner the City hoped to make Fleishacker pool and its once-oppulent Mediterranean style buildings part of a expanded and renovated San Francisco Zoo. But unfortunately, as the Zoo eventually became privatized in the early 1990's that project fell apart. With no real solid commitments to restore the Pool and its compound, the entire area became a magnet for vandalism. Graffiti germinated making the entire area desolate and forgotten.
Deemed a "total loss" and "a safety hazard" by SF Fire Department officials surveying the fire damage, it looks as if the remaining remnants will be demolished. "I haven't completely given up," said Woody LaBounty, a local historian, founder and coordinator of the Western Neighborhoods Project. "But I don't have a lot of faith that anyone with any clout wants to save this building," he said to this reporter days after the fire on Dec. 1.
SF realtor and member of the local SF Historical Society, Gloria Rogan agreed as she said, "with all the money that flows through this City, you think it would be a worthy effort." Yet, she surmised, "I think one of the reasons why things with real historical significance like the Fleishacker Pool get ignored or go unnoticed is because so much of the City is transient in nature."
"I am originally from Michigan not far from Detroit, said Rogan and what bothers me about this wonderful city of San Francisco is the short-sighted indifference," she said. "Back in Michigan the people there at least try to save some of the landmarks," she said. "It is not easy, because Michigan has fallen on hard times. Yet here in San Francisco, where money flows more readily, interest in saving or restoring falls apart." Rogan made note of the recent completed restoration of the Dutch Windmills. "But, that was spear-headed a lot by private efforts and then the Dutch Government," she said.
Most of the problem with these landmarks and public park areas is that the Recreation and Parks Dept. is not able to manage so much acreage and various property holdings. Golden Gate Park itself has over 1,100 acres, plus more than a dozen recreation centers, and playgrounds, etc. Rogan also noted that such landmarks are witness to not only to San Francisco's civic and public recreational past but the entire nation. "People forget that previous generations went out of their way to support and ensure that parks, pools, zoos and such were a part of the public life that everyone could share in."
Unlike the amusement parks of today, such as Great America, Six Flags and even Disneyland, to go to Playland-at-The-Beach was free. Yes, rides did cost a fee, yet to walk into Playland or to stroll along the boardwalk was free to all. The Fleishacker Pool, Zoo, along with Playland, the Sutro Baths and all of Golden Gate Park was a way for families to "have a little vacation" without having to travel that far or spend a lot of money. This was certainly all from another era.
It is hard to fathom that at one time along with the City's Zoo (also founded by Herbert Fleishacker), the Park, the Museum, the Academy of Science and other attractions were all managed and operated by the City of San Francisco. In the 1990's the trend to "privatize" has questioned if it is within the City's power and resources to maintain and administrate these facilities without a "public-private" partnership.
"As most of us know, members of the public have asked the Zoo and Rec and Park to attend to the building over the past decade with no change in approach or plan," said LaBounty. "Between loose tigers, soccer fields, dog walkers, coyotes, recycling center evictions, beach and road erosion, financial issues and department head turnovers, the departments with jurisdiction over the site have not been able to focus any energy or, frankly, interest," he said. "I hope I'm not doing too much of a disservice to the city in guessing that it sees the fire as solving a problem, and prefers a quick demolition," noted LaBounty.
Still LaBounty is hoping for a good outcome despite the dismal forecast for the future of the remnants of Fleishacker Pool facilities. LaBounty contacted this reporter shortly after the SF Examiner story was published to say that "Architectural Resource Group is under contract to photograph the whole place."
And, that "Rec. and Park wants to save what decorative elements they can, perhaps one of the portals whole," he noted. "They are leaning on ARG and others to help with assessment of what can be preserved," said LaBounty. He believes and is hoping that, "A likely scenario might be open space landscaping with some remnant and interpretive display." Yet that all depends on Recreation and Parks Dept. and the eagerness of people to help pull efforts and resources together to save what remains and is feasibly possible to salvage.