Location: Chelsea, Manhattan
Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 yards
Fee: $13 with guest of resident, payable by check only
Fees to Date: $221.87
If ever there were a pool worth parading around 23rd Street in your Speedo in order to gain access, this is the one. Before I get to the true story of just such an incident, it’ll help to understand the pool’s history and the attributes that make it such a nice place to swim.
London Terrace, a mammoth apartment complex filling a city block in Chelsea, came into existence at the onset of the Great Depression and soon found itself in default, despite the nearly 1,700 units filling up quickly. A little foreclosure problem got resolved by separating the ownership and finances of the four corner buildings from the 10 interior ones. The latter now comprise London Terrace Gardens, a rental complex, whereas the London Terrace Towers eventually turned co-op. The pool, which can be found at the southwestern corner of West 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, resides in the Towers and is run by the co-op.
Originally configured for six lanes and with three diving boards as seen in the vintage photo at left, the pool quickly became a beloved amenity for residents and also frequently hosted high-profile competitions such as the 1939 World’s Fair tryouts. Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weismuller are said to have worked out here.
Starting in the 1939 and continuing at least through the 1960s, the influential Women’s Swimming Association made the pool its home base. This organization, which provided encouragement and support to Ederle and scores of other ground-breaking female athletes, used the pool for training and teaching.
It’s easy to imagine these pioneering swimmers finding inspiration here–the gently arched ceiling, cathedral windows, exquisite tiling, and classy locker rooms–just as today’s visitors do at this well-kept facility. The locker rooms alone are a treat, with old-school lighting, signage, and lounge chairs. It’s enough to make me want to don a fitted dress and hat and kick back, 1930s style.
The pool is every bit as lovely as you’d expect in such a grand setting. My host was an old friend and Towers resident, Gary, an excellent tour guide with the Wikipedia entry about the place to his credit. Among other tidbits: the pool generally goes unused on Wednesdays, and despite being underutilized it cannot be open to the public because it is only accessible by stairs and thus does not meet ADA requirements. The last usage agreement between Towers and Gardens is going to expire soon, so Gary anticipates tense negotiations over the pool in the new year.
This brings us to the Speedo-clad protesters in 1992. Threatened with loss of pool access or a stiff hike in fees, Gardens residents filed a lawsuit and mobilized in a quintessentially New York protest. “Swim free or die,” they chanted in their flip-flops, snorkels, and swim suits as they swarmed the Towers lobby and invaded the pool. A rent strike followed. In what could be claimed as a victory for both sides, Gardens residents retained their pool access with a steep hike in the service fee paid to the Towers.
Gary and I visited at night two Thursdays ago and had the pool nearly to ourselves. Swimming takes a little getting used to due to the lack of backstroke flags and the misalignment of lane lines and markings on the bottom, which are configured for five and six lanes, respectively. I’d visited during the day a couple times previously and had enjoyed the courtyard views from the large windows by the deep end. The nighttime turned out to be equally pleasant, thanks in no small part to the bright interior lighting. With a lane to myself and refreshingly cool water, I could have swum a long time were it not for holiday obligations.
Gary hadn’t swum recently due to an injury but is now recovered. He said he’d be happy to have company and motivation on future swims, so I’ll keep my checkbook handy when I visit Chelsea and look forward to future brushes with the ghosts of swimming luminaries in this historic pool.