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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 27: Fleishhacker Pool

Promoted as the world's largest outdoor swimming pool, San Francisco's Fleishhacker Pool opened in 1925 and closed in the early 1970s. It was cold!
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jul 12, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 27: Fleishhacker Pool Outside Lands Podcast Episode 27: Fleishhacker Pool

(above) Fleishhacker Pool, Jun 4, 1925

View south from the high dive tower at Fleishhacker Pool, lifeguards patrolling in rowboats. Bathhouse at right. Now the site of the SF Zoo parking lot. [Fleishacker (Sic) Pool, Looking South from Sloat Blvd.][dpwbook35 dpw9768]
DPW Horace Chaffee


Podcast Transcription

27 - Fleishhacker Pool

Woody: [00:00:00] [Intro Music] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody La Bounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David.

David: Yes?

Woody: How do you like my podcasting voice?

David: I think it's excellent, Woody. I'd say you're back in town.

Woody: Hey, that sounds good.

David: Me?

Woody: Yeah, you should always talk like that.

David: I can talk like this if I need to.

Woody: That's good. Don't do it anymore. David.

David: Yes, Woody.

Woody: Did you have fun at our Secret San Francisco movie night last night?

David: Did I? It was a swell night all around.

Woody: Yeah, so we had done it at the Bal-

David: Ugh. That's my chair.

Woody: Whoops, you okay?

David: I pushed the wrong chair button. There! Now I'm good.

Woody: I thought that was your back. So, we had our first San Francisco movie night at the Balboa in May, and that sold out. And then we had an encore performance last night at the Vogue Theater. And that almost sold out, I think.

David: Well, they had a sign on the box office said it was sold out. [00:01:00] It sold out that day.

Woody: Oh, great. We had a lot of fun. I mean, I think it was a good crowd. They laughed at the right times. And, I think–

David: It was so much fun, maybe we should do it again, Woody.

Woody: We'll put that on the table to talk about later, David.

David: That was diplomatic of you! A very different answer than you've been giving me.

Woody: Yeah. Hey, we have some mail on our podcast.

David: All right!

Woody: Yeah. Jeff wrote in and he said, "Hi all. I just found the site and podcast and I wanted to ask that you keep up the good work.”

David: We'll try.

Woody: "My grandfather grew up in the Richmond and would tell me stories about the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool, and holding on to the streetcar in order to sneak into the Presidio mess hall to eat with the soldiers as a kid.”

David: Huh.

Woody: "My grandfather recently passed away, and none of these things exist for me to go see, but your podcasts and articles bring his stories to life with lots of wonderful detail. Thanks!" That's Jeff.

David: Well, you still can go to the V.A. [00:02:00] Hospital Cafeteria.

Woody: The best view in the city if you want to have breakfast.

David: Especially if you like sixty-five cent pancakes.

Woody: Yeah, it's pretty good. It is a nice view. So, thank you, Jeff. And if you listen to our podcast and want to write us, please do. Go to our website, outsidelands.org, and just hit the contact button there. And you can tell us what you think of the podcast. So, Jeff mentioned Fleishhacker Pool.

David: Yes, Fleishhacker Pool!

Woody: That's what we're going to talk about today. We had done that San Francisco Zoo podcast a few weeks ago, and we said Fleishhacker Pool deserved its own podcast.

David: And it does.

Woody: So, we're going to do that today.

David: Right now.

Woody: At this moment.

David: Immediately following this prevarication.

Woody: Where was, what is Fleishhacker Pool, David? Where was it? Why is it called Fleishhacker? I need to know!

David: Well, Fleishhacker Pool was a giant outdoor swimming pool that was right next to the zoo. In fact, it predated the zoo.

Woody: Right.

David: It [00:03:00] was opened in 1925. It was a thousand feet long. And where was it, Woody? Well, it was, and still is, directly under the zoo parking lot, which was built a few years ago.

Woody: You can't go in and swim.

David: No, but it's still there. They just filled it in and asphalted over, so it can be restored!

Woody: Oh, you think so?

David: No, I don't think so.

Woody: Okay. So, this is a giant outdoor swimming pool,

David: Saltwater!

Woody: yards from the Pacific Ocean.

David: That's right.

Woody: That seems a little odd.

David: Well, I don't know about you, but I grew up hearing about the riptide.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And never go out in the, never go in the ocean because it would

Woody: Undertow.

David: undertow you.

Woody: Yeah. They used to have signs out there that basically said you will die if you go into the water. So, the Fleishhacker Pool was a safer swimming option.

David: I think you could still drown in it, though.

Woody: Well, I bet you could. You're talking about a [00:04:00] thousand feet long, a hundred and fifty feet wide. If you're at one end of the pool and your friend's at the other, you probably wouldn't even recognize them, I mean, so far away.

David: Yeah. They did have lifeguards, though, patrolling in rowboats.

Woody: That's cool. Yeah, with their little oars and things. Yeah, I think when it opened in April 1925, they have, I think, fifty lifeguards on duty.

David: Wow.

Woody: Which was good because the first week I think there were, like four thousand people who showed up to pay twenty-five cents to swim around in the world's largest outdoor swimming pool. Or how that's how it was billed at least.

David: Right.

Woody: Who built it? How did it get built? What's the deal with this?

David: It was spearheaded by the Parks Commissioner named Herbert Fleishhacker.

Woody: Or was it Mortimer? I get them mixed up.

David: They're two brothers.

Woody: Yeah, one of those Fleishhackers was president of the Park Commission.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And so I think it was named... I think he might have donated some money to help with it, but it was a public San Francisco Recreation Department facility.

David: Right.

Woody: Yeah.

David: So, it was [00:05:00] called Fleishhacker Pool, and then the zoo came later, I believe, and that was also called Fleishhacker Zoo until the 40s.

Woody: Yeah, we talked about that in the zoo podcast. I think people were still calling it that, and it was on maps until the early 70s even. It's kind of amazing. But Fleishhacker Pool, six million gallons of water.

David: That's a lot.

Woody: Filled the pool.

David: I can't even imagine that much water.

Woody: And they pumped it in from the ocean. They had like an intake pipe that basically pulled in the ocean water.

David: Did it get filtered? Were there any grates? Did it keep the fish out?

Woody: Are you gonna tell the shark story now?

David: No, I'm just setting it up for you.

Woody: Well, I don't know the shark story. I, yeah, there's always this rumor that people always say, there was a shark that got into the pool one time. But, no, I think there were filters and I do think they kinda tried to get a lot of the effluvia out of the ocean before it got in.

David: Because right down the way they were pumping effluvia into the ocean.

Woody: Yeah, they, it's [00:06:00] true. But it did get a little messy. It's funny because sand would get in and every now and then they'd have to drain the pool, pretty frequently.

David: How long would that take to drain that six million gallons?

Woody: I don't know. You have all these questions I can't answer. But then they would have to essentially shovel sand out of the pool that just like built up on the bottom because at the deep end of the pool, it was like fourteen feet deep, they had a high diving platform.

David: That's at the north end, right?

Woody: Yes, and it was a beautiful, kind of ornate high diving platform they built originally.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And so that was fourteen feet deep, but when they would empty the pool and shovel out the sand, it would, you know, it got down to like twelve feet deep because so much sand would kind of accumulate down there.

David: Well, anybody who's walked along Sloat near the zoo knows that sand accumulates around there.

Woody: Sand happens, man. Did you ever swim in Fleishhacker Pool?

David: No.

Woody: No, my mother did. She always bragged about how she climbed up and dove off the [00:07:00] high diving platform.

David: Huh.

Woody: But most people who went to Fleishhacker Pool went at least, well they'd go once, but a lot of them didn't come back. And you know why?

David: Because it's bitterly cold out there?

Woody: Yes, it was freezing and foggy. It was a, you know, part of the, pretty much the foggiest part of town. If it's going to be foggy–

David: Well, you know what? I think that up near the Tower Market is the foggiest part of town, but. I digress.

Woody: Well, how does the fog get there? It has to come up from the ocean, right?

David: Yeah, but it's laying right down on the ground all the time up there. So, okay, it's foggy.

Woody: It's foggy.

David: Windy.

Woody: It's ocean water.

David: I like to think of it as invigorating mist.

Woody: Sea mist.

David: Yes.

Woody: Invigorating sea mist. Yes, but it's ocean water. Now, supposedly they were heating this. It was supposed to be seventy degrees, which never got to that, I'm sure.

David: Well, I'm sure it was warmer than the ocean, just by the fact that it was sitting there.

Woody: The ocean's cold. And people were going out there, they're swimming. I guess everything I've heard, you, you, [00:08:00] before you even hit the water, your teeth were chattering. And so, it was just a, kind of a miserable place to swim in that sense.

David: Yeah,

Woody: And then they tried to have, like swim meets and like national competitions and those sort of things, and they did have them there But it wasn't a nice place for that either and it was hard to train at and cold and foggy. But it was long enough for them to have very long sort of swim matches.

David: Yeah, they would rope it up. I mean, it's way too long for swim matches.

Woody: Yeah, that's true.

David: But I think they even would put in like a little break water or something to smooth out the water because such a big body of water will get waves from the wind and get kind of choppy even inside a pool.

Woody: Yeah. And then the cool thing, I mean we talked about this in December, the Fleishhacker Pool house building burned down sadly. And all that remains now is they've torn all the debris out, and it's just this portal, but it was a beautiful bathhouse that faced Fleishhacker Pool on the west side. It was just kind of really–

David: Between the [00:09:00] pool and the ocean.

Woody: yeah and beautiful and with this green, glazed tile roofs and these sort of sea creature reliefs around the doors, and inside they had a restaurant and changing facilities for the swimmers, tunnels that went underneath the Great Highway to the beach. Very neat sort of place.

David: So, the restaurant, I never hear much about the restaurant. Was the restaurant very popular? I mean, is it like the Beach Chalet is today or something?

Woody: Yeah, I think it was more hot dog-y. I think it was more hot dogs and cokes-type restaurant.

David: Like a cafeteria?

Woody: Yeah, and I think it was open to World War II, roughly, and then it kind of closed. That's my guess. I might be wrong about that. But because after that, in the early 50s, the bathhouse was used by the Recreation Center for the Handicapped, where it got its start there, using rooms in the bathhouse, which is now the Pomeroy Center, I think?

David: Right, which is now on Zoo Road, behind the zoo there.

Woody: Yeah, but that, big San Francisco [00:10:00] institution got its start in the Fleishhacker bathhouse there right after World War II in the early 50s.

David: You asked me if I had ever swum, if I ever swam at Fleishhacker Pool, and I have to say no, I am too young, but my only experience was right after they filled it. It was all, before they built the parking lot, this was like in the mid 80s or something when I was getting interested in San Francisco history. And I was out drinking beer. No. No, I wasn't, I wasn't, I wasn't out drinking beer, but I did, I did wriggle through the gate there and went out to the dirt, what was then a dirt parking lot, and there were construction vehicles parked on it. And you could walk right up to the edge of the pool and you could sweep away the dirt, and the tiled edge of the pool was visible. You can see these, you know, ornate, terracotta tiles around the edge of the pool. [00:11:00] So that's why I believe that it's still there.

Woody: Right.

David: And it's still

Woody: salvageable.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah, maybe.

David: Well now, I mean you said they had to dig four feet of sand out of it, now they've got fourteen feet of sand and then some asphalt–

Woody: and rubble

David: on top of it.

Woody: Yeah, yeah. Well, when I was a kid, we used to go to the zoo, and it was all kind of fenced off, it had closed pretty much, but my mom, the tower was still there, the diving tower was still up, and the pool was there for a long time with some sort of rainwater in it. And my mom used to always point through the fence and say, "Ah, that's Fleishhacker Pool! That's where I jumped off." So, I knew about it as a kid, but I never.... It was closed by the time I would have swum in it.

David: Yeah, I mean, when I would go to the zoo, that was just kind of a backwater of the zoo, and you wouldn't really go out that way.

Woody: Yeah, it was more like we saw it from Sloat. We kind of saw it from Sloat. What happened to Fleishhacker Pool then? I don't understand. They build the world's largest swimming pool. It's got lifeguards and a beautiful boathouse, I mean, pool house there. There are play fields that were developed that went [00:12:00] off to the east and everything. It was great except–

David: Tennis courts, yeah.

Woody: What, what happened?

David: Well, the same thing that happened to all of our great west side amusements that just kind of died out.

Woody: Hmm.

David: You know, I think people weren't going to it.

Woody: People got cars in the 20s. That really started happening, and then they went, "Why would I go swim in the fog at Fleishhacker Pool?”

David: "When I can go up to Russian River or something."

Woody: Right, right, where we could just put the family in the car and drive to some place warm and swim. So that seemed to be a big part of it for sure. And it was also, I think, a maintenance nightmare. The filtering system, the getting the water in, the cleaning the pools.

David: Salt water will do a number on your plumbing.

Woody: I think there was actually an algae problem, strangely enough, which I don't know how that happened with saltwater, but I, I read about that too, they had a lot of trouble cleaning the pool with algae of some kind. Oh, I think it's because for a while there they tried to have fresh water [00:13:00] in it. This is what I remember now. The pipe that went out to Ocean Beach broke and they tried to fill it with fresh water sometimes.

David: Like from Lake Merced or something?

Woody: I don't know where they got the water. But I remember reading about that. And then, that was really the end, in the early 70s. It had deteriorated. It didn't make any money for the city. I think I read somewhere that a good year for Fleishhacker Pool brought in five hundred bucks for the year, for people to swim out there. In the early 70s, it's deteriorated. People aren't using it. And then the pipe broke that went out to the ocean. It had some maintenance problems. And then it was like, do we spend the money to fix this thing up?

David: No!

Woody: Well, that's what the city of San Francisco thought.

David: No, we don't! But what we did get were a whole lot of neighborhood indoor swimming pools that were built after Fleishhacker Pool, right?

Woody: Yeah, well, in the 50s, and for sure there were. Yeah. But they went to a ballot measure. I mean they actually tried to save it, and you remember, your brother, I think, actually hung out with this guy who had led the campaign to save Fleishhacker Pool.

David: Right. Billy [00:14:00] Nichols. I mean, I don't think he hung out with them, but I think that they...I seem to recall him meeting him at, like the VFW Bar, which was at the, at the Beach Chalet, a few times. And Billy Nichols was a guy who tried to mount a one-man campaign to save Fleishhacker Pool. He had a car with slogans on it. He had bumper stickers. I think that he even did kind of a guerilla maintenance project on it where he cut the locks and would go in and mow the lawns and keep it clean, keep it

Woody: fixed up.

David: Yeah, fixed up in case they could get some traction on rebuilding it.

Woody: Well, it did get on the ballot, and it was 1977, I think, it got on the ballot to say, "Shall the city, you know, raise bond money to fix Fleishhacker Pool?" And at the time I believe the money that they would have had to have raise to fix Fleishhacker Pool was one million [00:15:00] dollars. And the city said, the people of San Francisco voted that down, and so that was pretty much the end, and I think the bulldozers pretty much came in and started doing the work of filling it in and tearing everything down in the early 80s. ‘81 roughly.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And that was kind of it. But the bathhouse was there for so many years as a reminder. I mean, you'd go park in the zoo parking lot, you'd see this giant bathhouse, and now that that's burned there's not really much to–

David: They just left that one archway.

Woody: yeah, to remind you of it. But, I don't know, David, are we only going to talk about things that get torn down that were cool in the past?

David: We are a history podcast.

Woody: Why can't you guys talk about good things that are still around?

David: We talked about odd buildings last week.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah.

David: We....well, there's just, people have a lot of memories of Fleishhacker Pool. And that's why we talk about it, because we want to keep it alive, and we want to say, "Hey, this [00:16:00] is what was here. Thousands of people came out to swim in this place. They made their childhood and adult memories here. And that's, that's why we talk about it.

Woody: Yeah. And there were some great swimmers who actually swam out there. And a lot, a lot of the sort of Ocean Beach surf scene began there with lifeguards that were Fleishhacker lifeguards that started–

David: with Johnny Weissmuller lifeguarding.

Woody: I think Ann Curtis swam. I don't think he was a lifeguard, but Ann Curtis swam out there. Yeah. So, they had–

David: Duke Kahanamoku?

Woody: Yeah, he might have been out there, the Duke. You're right, David. You're right. You turned me around. We have to talk about this stuff because people like to remember. And if you go on our website, we have beautiful pictures of Fleishhacker, right?

David: And if you have memories of Fleishhacker Pool, send them in to us. Or pictures, or anything. That are your pictures.

Woody: Yes. Go to outsidelands.org and just, I would put in pool, because Fleishhacker is very hard to spell, but put in pool into the search box, and you'll find a whole bunch of info. [00:17:00] And David?

David: What, Woody?

Woody: I would encourage people to join the Western Neighborhoods Project as paying members.

David: That's right. We are solely funded by our membership.

Woody: Pretty much. We do get some other grants.

David: Once in a while.

Woody: But yeah, but our members are what kind of pay the bills and help us do things like this. So. And share pictures of Fleishhacker Pool. So, become a member if you're not already. And if you are a member, thank you so much.

David: Thank you.

Woody: So that's it, Fleishhacker Pool. You got anything else to add?

David: Six million gallons! If anyone asks you.

Woody: Yeah, that's how many.

David: Say it like that.

Woody: I'm still tired from the movie last night. They wore us out out there.

David: Are you sure it wasn't the beer you drank afterwards?

Woody: Oh, it could have been. Alright, see you next week, everybody.

Woody: [Outro Music] Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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