Coming Clean

Reading the Suds of History

Before spa, the Concept, there were baths, the urgent need. Before aromatherapy— or indoor plumbing, for that matter— there were public shower houses and floating baths. Although New York is currently gripped by an obsession with hygiene, both physical and moral, it would be misguided to assume that our mania for sanitation wasn't always crucial to how we experience ourselves. The overlaundered masses of the late 20th century descend directly from the previous century's "great unwashed." Some of us are still trying to perfume away the taint.

How else to explain the proliferation of day spas with seaweed wraps and lomi-lomi? The efforts of a vice-obsessed mayor forever looking to scrub the civic mouth out with soap? What is "Quality of Life" but a sloganeering excuse for repudiating life's more inevitable and least savory aspects? Who gets to decide what constitutes clean?

These thoughts are occasioned by a visit to one of the city's more obscure museums, where a modest exhibit about swimming pools has opened just in time for Christmas. If it makes perverse sense for "New York's Floating Bathhouses" to debut at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in this season, there's also sly logic in how the show's curator, David Gissen, uses a little-known aspect of history to tweak current trends in urbanism that focus on reimagining New York as a maritime city. (The nonprofit Van Alen Institute, for instance, recently sponsored a competition, "Design Ideas for New York's East River," that elicited 214 international submissions.)

The first floating bathhouses were built in the early 19th century near the Battery and at Castle Garden. As day resorts catering to a moneyed caste, they were early forerunners of Manhattan spa hotels, minus the wheat grass and piped-in Apache flute music. New Yorkers of the period went to floating pools for the therapeutic effects of salt air and also, of course, to see and be seen.

By the turn of the century, public bathing had taken on a different kind of urgency, as 4 million people each summer visited 20 bathhouses afloat in the East and Hudson rivers. The burgeoning of floating bathhouses followed the needs of immigrant expansion; nearly 2000 immigrants were arriving in Manhattan monthly after the Civil War. Packed into tenement buildings that lacked not only showers but toilets or sinks, people in working-class immigrant neighborhoods gravitated to the wharfs and piers for relief from their ghettos and also to get washed. That the rivers themselves were dangerous and filthy was not much deterrent. Neither were commonplace drownings and accidents.

The phenomenon was of no crucial concern to city fathers until the sight of naked people at the waterfront became offensive to commuters arriving by ferry. It was only then that public health officials and temperance societies, who'd been advocating aggressively for enclosed public baths all along, got their way. In 1870, Boss Tweed, then commissioner of public works, opened two public bathhouses, one on each river.

People were still bathing in the same polluted waters, but now they did so behind high wooden walls. They arrived in large numbers and formed ad hoc bathing societies that mimicked those in Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. "Public bathing seems alien to us now," explains the show's curator, architectural designer David Gissen, in a period "when the whole idea of human physical experience is seen as frightening."

With no chance of distancing themselves from bodily function, immigrants adapted the bathing structures in ways that "allowed them to become culturally infused." That the baths were segregated by sex— men and women attended on alternating days— was "just so much the better." Eastern European Jews, according to Gissen, "may even have used them as a substitute for the Orthodox ritualarium, or mikvahbath."

In 1907 the government commissioned a labor report that judged the baths overcrowded and the water foul. Contending that immigrants were being forced to bathe in filthy waters, the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor conducted its own 1915 test in which dye poured into a sewer at Rutgers Street and the East River later turned up in the water at the Battery Baths. Soon afterward, the city accelerated construction of permanent public bath- and shower houses. Indoor plumbing became commonplace with the completion of the Croton Aqueduct. And, by the late 1930s, the last of the riverborne structures was closed.

The Floating Bathhouses remain compelling, however, because they "remind us of this most pressing bit of urban landscape, our rivers," as the curator says. They remind us, too, of how the waterfront can be adapted to uses that are subtle and elegant, not monolithic. Over time the city has seen all manner of floating structures, from "cinemas to floating housing to floating prison barges to a floating symphony during the Liberty celebrations," as Parks Council president Ann L. Buttenwieser points out. Before the Department of Ports and Terminals forced him to remove it, River Café restaurateur Buzzy O'Keeffe once even constructed a floating beach.

Since 1984, the Parks Council has been issuing proposals to revive the concept of floating pools. "Somehow the time has never been right," as Buttenwieser says, "but it could be now."

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