40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#102: Berkeley City Club

on April 11, 2020

pool view from the shallow endLocation: Berkeley, California

Configuration: 25 yards with space for about 5 swimmers to each have their own trajectory (without lane lines)

Fee: Members and hotel guests only

It felt like a different time even then, and more so in retrospect now that we are in week four of the worldwide coronavirus lockdown. Five wonderful early spring days visiting friends and family while staying at the medieval-style Berkeley City Club. Wake up before dawn, venture downstairs for a swim in the stunning pool, replenish in the dining room over breakfast and the New York Times (in print, thank you very much), and then set out for a day’s adventure. Life at this 90-year-old “Little Castle” was wonderfully civilized but not stuffy, active but relaxing. 

Like a precious few other pools I’ve experienced, this one was designed by and for women. Architect Julia Morgan — who broke gender barriers in her studies at Cal and the École des Beaux Arts and in 1904 became California’s first licensed woman architect — “had a special knack for swimming pools, using color, light, and shape to create sumptuous designs that flaunted a hedonism startling for so modest an architect,” according to biographer Sara Holmes Boutelle (Julia Morgan, Architect, 1988). Cal’s classically inspired Hearst Pool (my #53) whetted my appetite for her work, and I dream of someday swimming in her most famous aquatic creations at Hearst Castle. Most of her other pools, whether for private homes, YWCAs, or municipalities, are no longer intact.

Julia Morgan's first floor plan PLUNGE

The “Plunge Room” at right is the club’s largest interior space. Click for the full first-floor plan. Image courtesy Berkeley City Club.

For what was originally the Berkeley Women’s City Club (single-sex from opening in 1930 until 1962), Morgan made the pool the largest space in the entire building. According to Boutelle, it was put to good use from the beginning: “The Women’s City Club took special pride in ‘waterproofing’ its members, and indeed it pioneered in having a special swimming membership at a time when no other facility in Berkeley was open year-round to women for lessons or for recreational swimming. It is clear from the plan that the 25-by-75-foot pool (labeled ‘plunge’ by the architect) was to play a major role in club activities, since it was given the entire stretch of the building’s east wing.” 

pool view from the deep endAlthough built of concrete and steel, the pool has an Old World feel thanks to leaded-glass windows, magnificent tile work, decorative arches and beams disguised to look like wood, and abundant ornamentation. Swimming here also felt a bit Old World: no lane lines or pace clock, a co-ed locker room with private changing stalls, and a clientele that skewed senior. The water circulated at a healthy rate, and it got choppy with just one swimmer churning away. The very-shallow shallow end turned out to be good prep for the Trinity School Pool. The deep end no longer meets regulations for diving, so the board was removed.

pool view from the loggia

Pool view from the loggia. This is where I would hang out and work if I were a member.

It’s worth mentioning that in addition to the hotel, there are some permanent residents here and also a club membership option that I tried talking my brother into. What a nice place this would be to have always at your disposal.

The major drawback of swimming here is that it’s indoors in a city with abundant year-round outdoor options including Cal’s Spieker Pool just a block away. I always prefer swimming en plein air, and even the garden windows (open!) and portholes here didn’t do the trick, so stay tuned my report from a different option nearby. But first, a few more images from this treasure.

whale on the bottom

Whales swim through the chop at the bottom of the pool.

seahorses as if carved into a column

Naturalistic decor predominates, including these seahorses and shells in the poolside column’s capital.

central hallway

This way from the front desk to the pool.

arches and stairway

View from the main lobby.


One response to “#102: Berkeley City Club

  1. […] a stay at the Claremont but dithered and the rates shot up — and I was happy to end up at the Berkeley City Club instead. The Claremont website clearly states that visitors aren’t allowed at the Club, which […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: