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Come On In, The Water's Fine

It may be the oldest functioning indoor swimming pool in the U.S. -- and one of only a couple of indoor community pools on the Upper West Side. It's been patronized by generations of local families, and its alumni include a British knight and possibly even the comedian George Carlin, who grew up around the corner.
It may be the oldest functioning indoor swimming pool in the U.S. – and one of only a couple of indoor community pools on the Upper West Side. It’s been patronized by generations of local families, and its alumni include a British knight and possibly even the comedian George Carlin, who grew up around the corner. Yet the Teachers College Aquatic Center, as it is officially known, is one of the College’s hidden treasures, tucked away in the basement of Thompson Hall, where it is all but undetectable to the uninitiated save for the occasional whiff of chlorine and the distant, eerie sounds of splashing and children’s laughter.

The TC pool opened in the late 19th century, built in the style of old-world European Roman baths – with a balcony above the cabanas that surround the pool itself, and a large, ornate skylight directly above the water. It is 20 yards long, ranges from 3 feet to 6 feet deep, has no diving board, and features a lion’s head fountain, constructed in honor of the Columbia Lions sports teams, which still pours water into the pool, much to the delight of the children who swim there.

The era in which the  pool was built was a time when America’s middle and upper classes were discovering competitive sports and outdoor recreation in a big way, particularly water sports such as  swimming, diving and water polo. Municipal pools and pools at private clubs were popping up around the country. 

Columbia University’s gymnasium, too, was outfitted with a “swimming tank,” initially for both sexes, but in marked contrast to the current era, the Columbia men voiced displeasure with that arrangement. According to a New York Times  article from November of 1904 they complained that the Barnard women “left the tank full of hairpins, combs and rats [small wads of hair used at the time to add volume to women’s hairstyles] and that the dye-stuffs from their bathing suits left the water colored all colors of the rainbow.”  

Thankfully, relief was furnished by Mrs. Frederick Ferris Thompson, whose late husband had served on the Teachers College Board and founded, with his father and brother, the institution that is now Citibank.  Mrs. Thompson, nominated to the Board herself by Grace Dodge, donated an entire building “dedicated to turning out professional instructors in the science of physical development—of health-getting and health keeping” according to another Times article.  The plan called for a diploma program to train physical education teachers, and for exclusive recreational use of the facility by female students of Barnard and Teachers College, female graduate students of the University, and female students of the Horace Mann School, then located on TC’s campus. Courses in swimming were to be offered to the general public.

The Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Building was dedicated on Monday, October 31, 1904, as part of the Columbia University sesqui-centennial celebration.  Billed as the nation’s largest gymnasium for women, it was four stories high and contained a swimming pool, showers, locker rooms and dressing rooms, three bowling alleys (also in the basement, and the first to be constructed in any college gymnasium in the country), handball and fencing courts, an exercise room and, on the top floor, a two-story gym with an elevated running track.  However, the most prized feature, according to the Times, was the unique hair-drying room “fitted with steam pipes and hot-air radiators which raise the temperature of the atmosphere to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.” 

In the century-plus since then, TC faculty, staff and students, and members of the local community have adopted the pool as their own, with fierce loyalty.   The aforementioned knight, who was still swimming daily at the age of 84, claimed, “This pool saved my life.”  A TC student, Shirley de Leon, wrote her master’s thesis on the building and the pool in 1982.  Some families have been coming to the pool for generations, while others find out about its existence when their children attend the Hollingworth Science Camp and other summer programs at the College. 

“We’re cheap,” says Vinny Alarcon, Director of the Aquatic Center, an American Red Cross instructor who provides lessons over a five-to-10 week span.  “It’s not about making money, but covering costs and being an educational setting where kids can learn.”

But to the families who use the pool, its true charm lies in the memories created and friends made while swimming there. 

Mimi McDermott, who grew up and still lives on 121st Street across from Macy Hall, remembers using the pool since the early 1950s when she was nine or 10 years old.  Recalling that the pool was not officially opened to the children in the community unless they had a tie to TC, McDermott remembers “sneaking in” with friends from TC’s Bancroft apartments. 

“When I was younger, the area above the pool was a little park and we neighborhood kids liked climbing up on the slanted roof [which had, at one time, been all copper] and sliding down it to the street,” McDermott said.  “TC itself was a huge playground for all the neighborhood kids.”  She recalled going up to the gymnasium to swing on the ropes and on Saturday mornings wandering through the ground floor hallways to the pottery rooms.  “I wasn’t supposed to be there, but nobody objected – there were all the future teachers making pots.” 

McDermott, who is a special education teacher in Bronx Regional High School, still lives in the same apartment on 121st where she grew up (and where her mother babysat for the young George Carlin).  In the 1970s, McDermott started bringing her son, Jason Mischka, to the pool to be part of a swim team run by a retired local man named Mr. Lacy.  “It was an integral part of Jason’s life,” she said. “It is where he learned to swim and it was a good place for him to be.”

Today, Mischka also lives on 121st Street with his wife and children.  “For me, growing up in the city, to have a pool right across the street was great,” Mischka said.  “[The TC pool] is a treasure for a lot of people.” 

Mischka’s family uses the pool year ‘round, and his son Jacob takes swimming lessons there now. Not only do they enjoy the pool’s convenience, they also love its charm.  “You get a sense that you are walking back into history with the skylight and the old-fashioned lockers,” Mischka added.

Around the time the elder Mischka was learning to swim at TC, Wavely Cannady, a 42-year TC employee who now works in the boiler plant, was charged with maintaining the pool.  He not only checked the chemicals and chlorine levels, he also worked with a team to give the pool a thorough once-a-year washing and the brass a thorough polishing.  Cannady’s wife Marla also worked at the pool as what he calls a “maid,” who was responsible for keeping everything clean—from the bathrooms, to people’s swim suits and towels.  “There was a book with everyone’s name on it and a number.  The people would ask for their swimming trunks that had been washed and dried by the maid at the pool,” Cannady said.

Over the years, TC faculty and staff and their families have also enjoyed use of the pool.  Professor Amy Stuart Wells and her son, Trevor, are regulars – with Wells swimming laps in the morning and doing water aerobics with other parents while their children practice once a week for a recently established TC Aquatic Center swim team coached by Alarcon.  

“One reason that I push swimming for Trevor is not only that I used to swim competitively, but because it is a life skill,” Wells said.  “It is a safety issue and part of child rearing.”  Trevor, now eight, who first began taking lessons as a one-year-old, has grown up at the pool. 

Wells raves about the cleanliness of the pool and says that the water is warmer than at other pools (typically 86 degrees, except for one day two winters ago when the glass skylight broke; the pool’s diehards swam anyway, while the staff sprayed them with warm water piped in from the showers) and the chlorine is less harsh “The balcony is great for when kids take swimming lessons because when they do the back stroke, they look up and wave.” 

Wells also likes the little cabanas because they offer better privacy than a huge locker room and give members a place to put their belongings. Noting the many birthday parties that take place at the pool, she adds,  “At other pools in Manhattan, they run you over and people are not very cordial. The TC pool is the best PR we do for the local community, because it’s the neighborhood pool for this neighborhood.”

Memberships to the TC Aquatic Center are on a semester-long basis and include family or individual rates.  The pool can also be rented out for parties on a per-hour basis, with additional fees for mandatory life-guards. 

Because of the pool’s small size, however, summer membership at the facility is limited to 250 people total.  Pool hours and fee schedules are available on the Aquatic Center Web page at  TC AQUATIC CENTER .

Published Monday, Aug. 20, 2007


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