I am probably the only person alive in Brooklyn to have made regular use of a Scottish municipal bath house as well as a "steamie," a public laundry facility. In my student days in Edinburgh I lived for a year in a flat with a bath tub that filled so slowly that by the time you had enough water for a bath, it was stone cold. The solution was the bath house around the corner from James Thin Bookseller, which had big deep bathtubs with an enormously wide faucet that released a river of hot water, filling the tub in seconds. While some probably associate such places with poverty, cold, damp and the smell of disinfectant, to me this memory is of a luxurious oasis of steam and heat and thick white towels. Perhaps I'm making up the towels, but the faucet was for real.
Hence, perhaps, this peculiar interest in the bath houses of Brooklyn. After the discovery of the image of the lost Hicks St bath house exterior in the Swanstrom dinner menu, a friend of the collection sent a photograph of that building's interior by Edward E. Rutter. It does not look luxurious, but the surfaces appear to be of marble, the space airy and moderately clean. Definitely better than a teacup of cold water in a dirty tub at home.
Another of Brooklyn's notable bath houses is Public Bath no. 7, the landmarked building on Fourth Avenue and President Street that now seems to be permanently surrounded by scaffolding. This building is by Raymond Almirall, who also designed three of Brooklyn Public Library's finest branches--Pacific, Park Slope and Eastern Parkway. (He was also the unfortunate architect of the Central Library that never saw the light of day, of which, more in another post.) The provision of public bath houses and the expansion of the public library system were both civic achievements of the first 10-20 years of the twentieth century, when public and private monies worked together to create institutions of lasting value such as the Carnegie libraries we still use today. The twentieth century saw the rejection of the public sphere in favor of the private in so many areas of activity. Just as the public bath house gave way to the private bathroom, the public theater fell victim to the private TV set, the growth of public transportation systems suffered from untrammelled passion for the private automobile, and now some functions of the public library are giving way to private access to the internet. In each of these cases we may gain our private oasis, but even in the case of the public bath house--a strange claim, I know-- we lose a forum for public endeavor, we lose a communal experience, and we miss opportunities for good architecture.
Pictures: Top: Public bath on Hicks St, architect Axel Hedman. Photograph E.E. Rutter, 1921
Bottom: Fourth Avenue flooded, with public bath No 7 in background, 1922