On July 2, 1909, Redondo Beach was the place to be in Los Angeles County. More than 6,000 day-trippers crowded into trains to make their way to the small beach town. They were there to witness the grand opening of the Redondo Beach Bath House.
This imposing Spanish-Renaissance structure—financially backed by railway magnate Henry Huntington—was adorned with exotic domes and turrets. It featured 1,350 dressing rooms, 62 bathtubs, Turkish baths, showers, reading and smoking lounges, and manicure rooms. Most intriguingly, there were three hot saltwater pools, lined in pale green tiles, surrounded by bleachers and lit by a towering skylight.
The three pools included a deep-water diving pool, a general pool, and a novel baby pool. By midday, 1,136 bathers were splashing and frolicking in the water. “The baby pool was a scene of intense interest, with its hundred or more of little tots bravely dipping into the sparkling water then bowing to the applause of parents and friends who watched them with zealous interest,” one observer wrote for the Los Angeles Times.
As the day progressed, the Schoneman-Blanchard orchestra played. The night ended with an impressive electric light display. Fountains within the pools glowed with colored lights, and the exterior of the structure was outlined with hundreds of incandescent lights that reflected off the adjacent Pacific Ocean.
The grandeur of the Redondo Beach Bath House was a far cry from the humble, rambling wooden shacks that once offered makeshift changing rooms; rentals of cumbersome, heavy bathing costumes; and ropes to hold onto as inexperienced bathers gingerly walked into the sea.
The first bath house in Santa Monica (and perhaps in LA County) was a small, rustic structure, built by the founders of Santa Monica, John P. Jones and Robert Baker. In 1875, the two formed the Santa Monica Land and Water Company. They began to drum up interest in their new development, which they hoped would include major railway involvement and eventually a port that would rival San Pedro.
“They were preparing for their big land auction, and those were a really big deal,” says Santa Monica Conservancy board member and longtime Santa Monica landmarks commissioner Nina Fresco. “They hired this great writer to write all these really flowery brochures for them and built [the Santa Monica Hotel] on the bluffs… they also built a tiny little bathhouse on the beach below the hotel. And that was the very first bath house.”
According to Fresco, at a time when most people did not know how to swim, Victorian bath houses often offered lessons for a small entrance fee, and little changing rooms so that men and women could modestly change into their rented form-obscuring bathing costumes.
(That, however, did not stop bathing women from being the object of men’s catcalls. One day, according to the LA Times, in the Santa Monica surf, a man stepped “up to a crowd of young men who were shouting over the dilemma of a lady in the water… ordering them to stop their hooting or he would trash every mother’s son of them.”)
Angelenos were soon flocking to the beach on warm summer days, and Jones and Baker began to expand their development on what came to be known as the North Beach of Santa Monica. In 1877, they tore down the original bathhouse and built a munch fancier structure. But they were not alone on the beach.
“Earlier that season, another guy named Michael Duffy had built another small bathhouse up the beach by Arizona Avenue,” Fresco says. “He was a squatter. They didn’t care so much at first. Then they opened their big establishment that they had actually invested money in building… There was a plunge, which is what they called a swimming pool. It had a lot of rooms with hot and cold running water to rinse off the sand... And then they booted Duffy out.”
Other entrepreneurs attempting to build their own Santa Monica bath houses met with more fatal results. “A carpenter, John V. Fonck, was working on a small bath house that was being put up on land in dispute. C. M. Waller, who was in charge of the bath house and beach property of the land company, ordered him to quit work,” Luther A. Ingersoll writes in A Century History of The Santa Monica Bay Cities. “Upon his refusal to do so, Waller fired and wounded him fatally. He claimed that he thought the gun was loaded with bird shot and that he was acting under the orders of E. S. Parker, the representative of Jones and Baker.”
Waller was later sentenced to only one year in jail. In the meantime, his wife ran the bath house throughout the 1870s and early ’80s. Mrs. Waller, known for her tact and experience, was said to have “suits to suit everybody” and to be able to handle the busiest of times.
But the Santa Monica Hotel Bath House soon had a formidable North Beach neighbor in the form of the grand Arcadia Hotel, between what is today Colorado Avenue and Pico Boulevard. The luxurious Arcadia, catering to the elite of Southern California, opened in 1887 and included a large bath house, complete with a hot salt-water plunge.
But Mrs. Waller’s former establishment (now managed by the appropriately named Mr. Suits) continued to increase in popularity with Angelenos of all classes. “The plunge in the North Beach Bath House is becoming very popular with the young people, who take absolute possession of it every afternoon, and furnish untold amusement to the spectators, who enjoy immensely their antics,” the LA Times reported in 1890.
The North Beach Bath houses would soon face competition from the sleepy beach to the south, known as Ocean Park, which had remained underdeveloped during Santa Monica’s early years.
“In 1892,” Fresco says, the Santa Fe Railroad “brought their train into Santa Monica through Ocean Park. That’s when Ocean Park started to wake up. Because now there was a train with a train station. And Abbot Kinney was desperate to be a part of that although he wasn’t as much of a player, he wanted to be. He did manage through a hostile takeover of a poor little railroad company to acquire the beach land that is Santa Monica’s Ocean Park Beach and what became the first part of Venice.”
Kinney donated part of Ocean Park to the YMCA, “so they could have nice, wholesome, Christian non-alcoholic beachfront,” Fresco says. That same year, the LA Times announced the construction of a YMCA. complex with a 50-room bathhouse on the beach near the Santa Fe Depot.
Faced with increasing competition, members of the Jones family decided it was time to upgrade the old Santa Monica Hotel bath house. “They tore down the old one in 1893 and rebuilt what is a pretty famous building called the North Beach Bath House,” Fresco says. “It was designed by Myron Hunt, who was a big shot architect. It was really fancy. It had a bridge that went over the train tracks up to the top of the bluff where Palisades Park was.”
When the $50,000 North Shore Beach House opened in June 1894, it was considered the finest bath house LA County had seen. According to the LA Times, it featured a long veranda, 300 dressing rooms, a large ballroom, a second-floor restaurant, and rooftop promenade with “an excellent view of the beach.”
Throughout the 1890s, these affordable, egalitarian bath houses (often backed by railroad companies) sprung up and down the Los Angeles County coast, as railroads brought Angelenos to once isolated parts of the shore. In 1894, the new Redondo Beach Bath House opened. They became grander and more elaborate.
“The North Shore built its own little beach house wharf in 1898, so they could look at the water in their heavy clothes,” Fresco says. “And they had a bowling alley there, and a pub where you could play cards with your friends and you know all kinds of things. So, it was really a beach club.”
By the turn of the century, LA’s beach houses had become famous throughout the world. In 1902, Gov. Ezra Savage of Nebraska caused a splash when he took a dip in the North Beach plunge. The LA reported: “It was feared that there would be work for the life-savers as the water closed over the portly Nebraskans, but they bobbed to the surface like corks.”
That same year, the Seaside Water Company opened its new state-of-the-art $85,000 bath house in Long Beach complete with innovative sanitary improvements. “Water for the plunge is obtained through an iron pipe leading out under the pleasure pier, where the supply may not be fouled with seaweed or sand,” the LA Times reported. “The interior work is in white and other light shades, and the dressing rooms and other places where the bathers are accommodated are constructed with drainage facilities designed to keep them in permanent sanitary condition.”
The Long Beach Bath House was soon a popular place for men to ogle women as an orchestra played. Plunges also provided more official entertainments. “The plunges had stadium seating on either side, and they would give water shows, and people would do trapeze acts and acrobatics over the water and in the water—water ballet and all kinds of things that you could watch,” Fresco says. Swimming races and diving competitions, often featuring athletes from local universities and clubs, were also popular.
On July 4, 1905, the massive $185,000 Moorish-style Ocean Park Bath House opened to a throng of eager day-tripping Angelenos. “The doors swung open, and from that moment until the day had worn far into the night the two plunges were alive with human fish,” it was reported.
There was also a dark side to bath house culture. Over the years, numerous accidental drownings were reported both in the plunges and the nearby ocean. The private changing rooms, rented by the hour or the day, were perfect for assignations, criminal behavior, and occasionally, mysterious deaths. In 1907, a man named Jon C. Riebe was found dead and badly scalded in the bathtub of his private changing room at the Ocean Park Bath House.
The era of the bath house would come to an end only a few years later. Tastes changed, and bathhouses became increasingly unfashionable. By 1909, the once grand Arcadia Hotel and its Bath House were abandoned ruins. That same year the North Beach Bath House was permanently closed. The 1910s and 1920s would usher in the era of luxury hotels, vacation homes, and private beach clubs. The public bath house, available to every Angeleno with a few quarters to spare, was a thing of the past.