A Deep Dive into Rumsey Pool’s Turbulent Origins
By Hilary Russell
Posted September 11, 2022
This article is part of a series that looks back on the history of our neighborhood.
The Capitol East Natatorium (now William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center) at 635 North Carolina Avenue, SE, was the first year-round, racially integrated public swimming pool in the District of Columbia. It opened next to Eastern Market in 1970, after concerted local lobbying for and against a pool at that location. Three historic Capitol Hill properties were enmeshed in the fierce debate: the struggling DC-owned Eastern Market, which city authorities wanted to close and demolish; DC Transit’s car barn at 1400 East Capitol Street NE, which stopped servicing and storing streetcars in 1962; and timeworn Firehouse Number 8, at 635 North Carolina Avenue SE, whose buildings were used for storage, repairs, and training programs.
In 1964, local organizations and activists were galvanized by the DC Health Commissioner’s declaration that Eastern Market was “a menace to public health” and should give way to “a huge supermarket center with plenty of parking.” They collected more than 4,000 signatures for a two-pronged petition. The first prong vigorously opposed the planned sale of Eastern Market after leases expired. The second favored replacing Firehouse Number 8 with a swimming pool and playground, reflecting the burgeoning local advocacy for more recreational facilities on the Hill.
Molly Rux, a young mother and member of the local women’s group Circle in the Square reportedly initiated the campaign, stating at a March 1964 public meeting, “We should have 43 acres of recreational space for 43,000 people…and we only have 12…We don’t even have a swimming pool to rebuild.” Circle in the Square prioritized a new swimming pool because it could be “used by more people of a wider age group in a smaller space than most anything else.” The group acknowledged the myriad challenges ahead: “The diffusion of responsibility on District affairs and our inability to exercise our democratic rights of local self-government make progress more difficult.” It would take six years and countless letters, meetings, and testimonials before the new pool was opened, in part due to intense local contentions.
The biracial Emergency Recreation Council for Capitol East (ERCCE), formed in the summer of 1964, strongly promoted building a pool on the old firehouse site beside Eastern Market. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) took the lead in opposing this site. Instead, it proposed an inexpensive renovation of Firehouse No. 8 buildings as an arts-and-crafts community center and the conversion of the East Capitol Street Car Barn for swimming and other recreational purposes.
Informed by the long and dismal history of segregated swimming in the District, allegations of racism soon surfaced. Supporters of the firehouse site referenced the fact that their opponents included the Capitol Hill Southeast Citizens Association, whose bylaws required members to be “Caucasian persons.” Local author Sam Smith outlined the controversy in his 1974 book Captive Capital, which quoted an unidentified homeowner’s statement at a public meeting that he didn’t want “all those colored kids running through the market in their swimming suits.”
CHRS’s preference for the car-barn site initially won the favor of the DC Board of Recreation, whose 1968 budget request included $1 million for the DC Transit site and $54,000 for a “planning study” for a pool and playground on the firehouse site.
“Storm Brews Over Recreation Center,” was the headline of a Washington Post report on a “quasi-public hearing” at Eastern High School on the Department’s proposal to buy the car barn and spend an additional $3.5 million to turn it into “a massive recreation center containing everything from swimming pools and roller rinks to woodworking shops and bowling alleys,” along with—potentially—”employment and health centers and nurseries.” The reporter summarized the issue that had “split the Capitol Hill community down the middle” and a bevy of uncharitable denunciations from both sides, but concluded: “What most people on both sides say publicly is that they would be happy to see both projects completed. They just happen to doubt that it is possible to get both.”
The ERCCE and many other Capitol Hill organizations expressed these doubts at congressional appropriation hearings and pleaded for prioritizing a pool at the firehouse site. As the ERCCE put it, “The land is there, already owned by the District Government,” and the need for recreational facilities on the Hill, “at once immense and immediate,” could be met “before the summer of 1968.”
The argument for building a pool next to Eastern Market prevailed, though not within this predicted time frame. The Post reported in April 1969 that the demolition of the firehouse was near completion. The Recreation Department had spent the $54,000 in planning money and would spend an additional $769,500 to build the East Capitol Playground and Natatorium.
My next article will focus on the design, construction, and opening of the new pool, a period marked by other controversies.