By Marty (Shtunken) Liboff
There is an old joke about a little boy and girl taking a bath together and the little girl sees the boy’s penis and says, “Can I play with that?” and the boy says, “No! You already broke yours off!” Long, long ago in ancient Rome they built huge bathhouses where people of all classes would go to bathe and mingle. In early Santa Monica and what was to become Ocean Park and Venice, many of the early beach shanties had a toilet but no baths or showers. Sometimes our hotels had a shared bathroom and shower on each floor of a building. As many of you know, our beautiful ocean rarely ever gets warm enough for swimming without a wet suit. Swimming in the ocean in the good old days was dangerous since there were usually no regular life guards. An amazing craze began in the late 1800s with beach bathhouses that had swimming pools filled with ocean water.
In 1876 on the north beach around where Chautauqua Blvd. is today a small bathhouse opened with showers and baths. Soon another bathhouse opened next door with an indoor pool using ocean water. In 1887 the Crystal Plunge opened with an open air seawater pool by what is now the Casa del Mar Hotel at Pico Blvd. In 1890s the huge Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica had a large bathhouse. In 1894 the North Beach Bathhouse opened just north of the early Santa Monica Pier. It had a large salt water pool and had many dressing rooms and a restaurant. Soon several bathhouses opened along the beach. You could bathe and swim in ocean water without even sticking your toes in the ocean! Most cost about 25 cents, which wasn’t cheap in those days.
In the late 1800s, Abbot Kinney and his partners were busy building Ocean Park on Santa Monica’s southern border. They sold lots and built a pier and resort with gambling. They faced some opposition from the city and the railroads and Kinney and his partners were not getting along together. His partners were Thomas Dudley who sold his interests to Alexander Fraser, Henry Gage and George Merritt Jones. Some streets around the beach were named after them. The story goes that in January 1904, Kinney and his three remaining partners all agreed to flip a coin to see who would stay in Ocean Park and who would leave and take over some land a ways south of Rose Ave. This land was considered worthless swampy marsh land. The coin was flipped and Kinney won the toss. To everyone’s amazement Kinney took the worthless marsh! He proceeded to clear the land and create his fantasy world that he called Venice of America. Some called it Kinney’s Folly.
Abbot Kinney’s ex partners decided they needed to spruce up their Ocean Park resort to compete with the amazing new Venice with its canals, pier and beautiful Italian Renaissance style buildings around what is now Windward Ave. They erected an enormous bathhouse on the Ocean Front Walk at Navy Street. A.E. Fraser hired builder Joseph C. Newscom to construct it. They spent $185,000, a fortune at that time. It took 18 months to build. Back then, everything north of Rose Ave. was still considered Ocean Park. Today the Venice border is just north of Navy St. and the bathhouse would be in Venice. The huge bathhouse opened the same 4th of July weekend as Venice of America in 1905. It was the 8th wonder of the world!
Just north of the new bathhouse the large Hotel Decatur was built. The small Denver Hotel just south of it at Ozone Ave. is now the Israel Levin Senior Center. I still remember the Levin Center many years ago with a second floor. The second floor apartments were removed because of earthquake concerns.
The gigantic new bathhouse was made to look like an enormous Moorish mosque. It resembled the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey. The indoor sea water pools came to be known as plunges, and this one was called the Ocean Park Plunge. It was also referred to in its early days as the Natatorium in Ocean Park. A “natatorium” is from the Latin and is a building with a swimming pool sometimes enclosed in its own ornate building. It became one of the main tourist attractions in southern California. There were more postcards and photos of it than anything else around here of that era. It had an enormous indoor swimming pool that they claimed was the biggest in the world. The heated salt water pool was 70 by 70 feet. Back then the ocean was much closer to the walkway. They ran pipes under the sand and pumped in ocean water. The water was heated and so you could very comfortably swim all year in sea water. There were filters to clean the sometimes murky sea water that was being pumped in. The filters had to be cleaned regularly. It was like a very early water park with slides, ropes, swinging rings and diving platforms. There was a large staff of lifeguards, matrons, janitors, massage workers and sales and restaurant personnel. After a few years the outside front was lined with shops of all kinds just like the Ocean Front Walk has today. You could buy the latest swim gown and bloomers or buy a hotdog. It was quite an enterprise. Tourists flocked from all over the world to the bathhouse and the Ocean Park Pier and the new Venice of America. At night the bathhouse and the piers were all lit up in a dazzling display of lights.
People have always believed in the medicinal properties of mineral baths and sea water. Tourists were led to believe that basking in the heated ocean water was beneficial to your health. It gave you strength and vitality. Now you could swim all year in warm ocean water. Along with the giant pool, the bathhouse offered lockers and showers. There were hundreds of dressing rooms. You could rent a towel and swim suits so you didn’t need to bring anything with you to the beach. There was a sauna and massage rooms. There were individual hot sea water bathtubs to soak in and then you would jump into a fresh water bath to clean your pores. There was a restaurant and bleachers to watch the swimmers. There were fancy lounges to relax. The new trolleys could bring you in from downtown L.A. for an amazing day at our beach resorts.
When Venice of America opened they had the Surf Bathhouse near the beach by Windward Ave. but it just had changing rooms and showers and no pool. Then another bathhouse opened in 1906 called the Lagoon Bathhouse with a 70 foot by 70 foot heated salt water pool like the Ocean Park Plunge. It was about where the northwest corner of Windward Ave and Main Street is today. Most locals are shocked when they learn that back then the Venice Circle was under water in a big lagoon.
But the Ocean Park Plunge was right on the Ocean Front Walk and looked so awesome. So, not to be out done, Abbot Kinney built another large bathhouse just north of Windward Ave. by the beach. It was about where the the Sidewalk Cafe is today on the beach side. It was called the Venice Plunge and it opened in 1908 and cost $100,000. He combined the Surf Bathhouse with its changing rooms, showers and lockers with an enormous fancy new building. It had an even larger pool than the Ocean Park Plunge! The large, heated, salt water pool was 150 by 100 feet and could hold 2000 people. It was the biggest in the west. It had filters to clean the incoming ocean water. There was a large balcony with seats for 1500 people to watch all kinds of aquatic events below in the giant pool. They staged water polo and swimming and diving contests. Jeffrey Stanton in his wonderful book describes a stunt man who dressed up in a chicken suit and set himself on fire and then dove from the high rafters into the deep pool! What a show! Jeffrey says there was a heating plant near the lagoon at Windward Ave. that kept the place nice and warm. There were both a deep and shallow end. Over the deep end was a high swing. Also at the deep end was a large diving platform with several levels of heights to dive. There were also diving boards and slides. Around some sides of the enormous pool were small fountains shooting up geysers of water. In the middle of the great pool was a big heated fountain where several people could sit and warm their tushies. Abbot Kinney had built a fun aquarium with all sorts of fish by his pier. In his new bathhouse swimming pool he put a large glass window where viewers could watch the swimmers from under water. It was Kinney’s human aquarium! We can imagine this was quite risque for that time watching young men and women swimming underwater in their bathing suits! I wish I could have seen that!
The Venice Plunge had an upstairs that originally had a gym and exercise rooms. Later the upstairs was converted into hotel rooms. In its declining years, the rooms were turned into cheap apartments. It outlasted many of the bathhouses along our beaches and even escaped an arson attempt in 1914 and the great pier fire in 1920 that destroyed most of the original Venice Pier.
From photos and post cards I see there were several bathhouses built within a few miles along our beaches. There was one in Malibu that looked like a beautiful little castle. There was the one by Chautauqua Blvd. and another near Topanga Canyon called the Santa Monica Canyon Bathhouse. There was the North Beach Bathhouse next to the Santa Monica Pier and the one in the Arcadia Hotel. There was the Crystal Plunge and later there was a bathhouse south of Pico Blvd. around Bicknell Street and another around Ashland Ave. on the north side of the Ocean Park Pier. There were Kinney’s bathhouses and maybe even more. However, the Ocean Park Plunge at Navy Street in Venice that looked like a giant, ornate Muslim mosque may have been the coolest looking. Beach bathhouses became the in thing for a while. Many were built after this along the southern California coast. Large ones were built in Redondo Beach and Long Beach. One of the most famous was the Sutro Baths in San Francisco that was built a couple years before our Ocean Park Plunge. The Sutro Baths had both a large ocean water and also a fresh water pool. Some were financed by the new railroads to promote tourism. Soon the fad was picked up on the east coast and large bathhouses were built at Coney Island, New York and in Atlantic City. Soon every beach resort town wanted a bathhouse. All of them were modeled after our bathhouses. Some pools in conservative towns separated the sexes and had one side for women and the other for men.
I don’t know if they were segregated, but I only see White people in the photos. The bathhouse south of Pico Blvd. at around Bicknell Street was next to the beach where Black people congregated. I imagine they may have had minorities at that nearby bathhouse? This beach area by Bay Street and Bicknell Street where Black people went was called the Inkwell. There is a historic marker in stone there at Bay Street commemorating the Ink Well.
About this time much of the new construction of homes and apartments began to have baths and/or showers. Locals could then take a bath at home. With the dredging to build the canals and the building of Venice, more sand was left on our beach. A couple of break waters were added to slow beach erosion. The new sewer plant and the combination of several piers began to allow the sand to slowly build up over time and the ocean began to get farther away from our Ocean Front Walk. Much more sand was added years later when the Marina was built and dredged out. This made it harder to pump in fresh salt water. Also by the late 1920s the fad was losing its appeal. There were so many bathhouses that the novelty soon wore off. The flappers or sexy girls from the 1920s and early 1930s began hanging out and strutting their stuff on the beach. Even though our ocean is cold much of the time, people began to venture out into the surf more. Plus it was free to just go down to the ocean and jump in. Life guards were hired and trained to watch out for swimmers on the beach. Thousands of people had flocked daily to our bathhouses until the mid 1920s, but by the late 1920s many began to close from lack of business. Maintenance costs for the large pools was high. Just the heating bills alone were enormous. Then the Great Depression hit in 1929 and business at the piers dropped considerably and didn’t begin to pick up again until 1935. By the beginning of WWII most of our giant bathhouses closed from high costs and lack of business. In 1943 the Venice Plunge was closed because the city declared the building unsafe from dry rot. In 1946 the Venice Pier lease wasn’t renewed by the city and the pier was demolished.
Time moves on and waits for no one…fads come and go – styles change – tastes evolve – movie stars and singers change every minute. And so went the great age of the dinosaurs – the massive, expensive to operate plungeasaurus became extinct. The great age of the ocean side plunges was no more…
Our amazing Ocean Park Plunge Bathhouse at Navy Street in Venice was sadly torn down. A new smaller building was put up where different variations of bingo were played. Bingo and gambling had been outlawed in L.A. but they tried to get around the anti bingo laws by creating new variations on the game. They invented funny names like bridgo and tango. Finally in the late 1940s the city closed the last of them down. My mom ran the bakery in Ocean Park and later at the Cadillac Hotel at Dudley Ave., and she used to say that when they closed the bingo parlors the money left the beach. After the bingo parlor closed there I remember it was empty for some time with the big sign up saying bingo. For a while it became a fun slot car racing place where you could rent or bring your slot cars and race them. Unfortunately our beach area kids were mostly poor like me and we couldn’t afford to spend much money there. It closed and was vacant again. It was torn down and it became a parking lot. Some years later they built the Adda & Paul Safran Senior Housing that is there now. Their arched front door is the same shape as the old front door of the wonderful old Ocean Park Plunge bathhouse that once stood there. When I tell people today about the bathhouses with heated ocean water many think it would be a fantastic idea today! However, our board of health would probably never allow it.
Why did the robber take a bath? He wanted to make a clean get away! Well, it’s time for me to try and make a clean get away until I shower you again with more of our amazing local history!
Above: The Lagoon bath house at Main St. and Windward Ave.
where 1501 Main St. is now (north, west side)
Above: The Ocean Park Plunge at Navy St. and the OFW
on OFW in front of the Sidewalk Cafe (on the north side of OFW)