Alice Keith Pool





Depression-era pool going down the drain
1938 Beaumont facility will likely be replaced


HOUSTON CHRONICLE ARCHIVES
Paper: HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Date: SUN 06/01/1997
Section: State
Page: 1
Edition: 2 STAR


By ALLAN TURNER
Staff

BEAUMONT - You could say the Alice Keith Park Swimming Pool was having a bad day.

Its water was lime green; the dressing rooms were rancid with mildew and awash with leaking water; the pipes were rusted, morale was busted and, one week into the summer swimming season, the whole complex was closed, locked up tighter than a drum because of a shortage of lifeguards.

The Alice Keith - the grand old lady of Beaumont's water recreation program and perhaps the nation's last Depression-era, above-ground municipal swimming pool - has fallen on hard times.

Unless by this time next year, a near-miracle occurs - a howl of public indignation, a gift of big, big bucks, or a development now undreamed of - the pool with its poured concrete facade and art deco styling will have been replaced and possibly demolished.

"The structure has gotten to the point that its useful life is over," said Lou Cappi, Beaumont's recreation supervisor. "It never was intended to last 60 years."

The cost of renovating the Alice Keith, a Works Progress Administration project built for $45,000 in the late 1930s, has escalated steadily. Early estimates were about $250,000, Cappi said. That sum now has grown to roughly $700,000 and, even if money for the project were available, Cappi noted, fixing the Alice Keith would still leave the city with a patched-together antique pool.

Building a new pool better suited for swimming competitions and classes, he said, would cost a bit less than $1 million.

The last of the city's three above-ground pools, the Alice Keith for decades was a social hub for the South Park neighborhood, a blue-collar enclave abutting the city's oil refineries.

"It was a real gathering place to swim," recalled Buddy Hebert, a member of the city's parks advisory board and a nearby resident. "We had some pretty good divers out of our area. The park in general was our social hub. We had free swimming lessons. They'd set up movies at night."

The pool occasionally was the scene of Olympic diving exhibitions.

During Beaumont's torrid summers, the pool and park were a refuge for thousands. "They'd stake out a picnic table and spend the whole day," Cappi said. "It was just a family thing to do."

Now, though, Cappi said, the pool has fallen victim to demographic changes.

The South Park neighborhood largely is made up of retirees. And, with a plethora of entertainment opportunities available, fewer people swim at pools. "Pools are still a place for teen-agers to see and be seen," Cappi said, "but relatively few adults swim in public pools. Even in water sports, they'd rather go sailing or running their motor boats. I haven't been swimming in years."

The Alice Keith suffers from other problems as well.

It leaks like a sieve.

Its oval shape precludes competitive swimming; its small shallow end and steep drop to the deep end make it less suitable for teaching youngsters to swim.

A steep flight of stairs to the swimming-pool level is an insurmountable barrier to the handicapped. And although parks officials partially remedied the problem by removing a railing and bringing in a forklift to hoist wheelchairs, the pool is hardly user-friendly for the disabled.

Despite free admission, those factors - compounded by a chronic shortage of trained lifeguards - have led to a dramatic drop in patronage.

This year, the lifeguard shortage - five lifeguards are needed at all times - led to the pool opening a week late. Cappi last week said he plans to solve the problem by alternating available lifeguards between Alice Keith and the city's other pool at Magnolia Park.

Last year, the same problem led to a month's delay in opening Alice Keith and contributed to the summer's low patronage of only 1,112 swimmers. Almost 14,000 swimmers used the Magnolia Park pool.

For several years, the parks department kicked off the season by filling the Alice Keith with more than half a ton of catfish for a three-day fishing festival. But even that event failed to draw enough participants to warrant its continuation.

The plight of the Alice Keith, which, like the South Beaumont park, was named for a philanthropic lumber baroness, has caused hardly a ripple in historic preservation circles despite the acknowledgment that such pools are very rare.

Built by a Lansing, Mich., company in 1938, the Alice Keith features the stark angles and stylistic touches of the late art deco period. Today, the pool's profile is marred by a chain-link fence erected on top to stop trespassers from scaling the walls for unauthorized nighttime swims.

No one seems sure why Beaumont originally opted for above-ground pools. Most cities built traditional sunken pools. Some pool experts suggested that above-ground pools were cheaper to build, or that soil problems or a high water table made them easier to build in Beaumont. "It may be that the WPA had an excellent artist, and it thought that an above-ground pool would be a way to show off his work," suggested Laguna, Calif., pool historian Bruce Hopping.

Parks supervisor Cappi said it may be possible to save the Alice Keith's dramatic facade, even if the pool is demolished. At present, several sites are under consideration for a replacement pool, but even if a new one is built elsewhere, it is not likely that Alice Keith will be left standing.

"It's a liability nightmare," Cappi said.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., pool historian Buck Dawson, though, suggested the city should not race to raze the pool. "WPA structures in their own right are almost always worthwhile," he said. Dawson, author of "Gold Medal Pools," a survey of outstanding public pools, believes that Beaumont should preserve the Alice Keith for a valid, if unperceived, future use.

"I'd hate to see them tear it down," agreed Pat Gilbert, a neighborhood resident who swam in the pool as a youth and is a member of the Jefferson County Historical Commission. "In general, I feel very strongly about preservation. Still, I can't help but feel that maybe it's time to replace the pool."

Mildred Hall, a founder and past president of the Beaumont Heritage Society, said public interest in the pool's survival seems to be minimal. Without public support for preservation and a clear potential for "adaptive reuse," saving a structure can be difficult, she said.

"It's just futile to try to save and restore every structure," she admitted. "It's difficult to arouse the masses."