Part II. A Deep Dive into Rumsey Pool’s Turbulent Beginning

Architect Gordon Bunshaft in 1957, in front of his Connecticut General Life Insurance Building. © Nipe Leen/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images. (Posted under fair use as a non-profit news blog with no commercial interest.) 
The newly opened Capitol East Natatorium. Note the latticed block enclosure wall, still extant, that many climbed over in 1970 and diving boards which are no longer allowed. Evening Star Collection, The People’s Archive, DC Public Library.

Part II. A Deep Dive into Rumsey Pool’s Turbulent Beginning

By Hilary Russell 

This article is part of a series that looks back on the history of our neighborhood.

Early in 1968, as the polarizing community hubbub [see ] around the location of the new Capitol East Playground and Natatorium abated, another controversy bubbled up.  This one pitted the DC Department of Buildings and Grounds against the Fine Arts Commission, an august federal advisory body appointed by the President of the United States.  The department favored a bunkered pool building immune to vandalism, while the commission insisted on a design that featured glass, light, and air.  Local architect Eugene Delmar said later that he had been obliged to submit his plans six or seven times.  

The commission flatly rejected his first submission because it presented “four unrelated buildings” that encompassed a large swimming pool, a wading pool, a bath house, and community room.  The second submission – a single, windowless, brick structure with a walled-in sundeck and removable plastic bubble roof – fared even worse.  The Washington Post reported that the commission “sent architect Eugene A. Delmar through a gauntlet of abrasive criticism,” and outlined specific input from member Gordon Bunshaft, architect of the Hirschhorn Museum and other landmark buildings and design leader of the large and prestigious New York firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Bunshaft is widely acknowledged as a giant in the field of modernist corporate architecture.  On his death, The Post architecture critic wrote, “As a design critic, he was widely feared, and rightfully so.  His cranky, brusque dismissals were famous.”  This article states that commission member Bunshaft had revised the plans for DC’s Metro stations.  During discussions on making every station different, he had grabbed a piece of paper and sketched “a station made of plain concrete with oval tunnels and coffered ceilings – essentially what exists today.”

The late Dick Wolf, representing Capitol Hill Restoration Society, saw Bunshaft make an analogous sketch of the natatorium during a commission session.  He told many people later (including me) that Bunshaft designed the strikingly modernist building.  The final plans, approved in June, were nothing like the early submissions. (Unfortunately, none of these plans can be located in the National Archives.)

Soon after the natatorium opened in August 1970, local architect Delmar acknowledged to an Evening Star reporter that it was not his design.  The commission, he said, had “very definite ideas about how the building was to be designed and they got exactly what they asked for.”  The article posited that the natatorium might be “a beautiful white elephant” and focused on the vandalism and theft visited upon the spanking new building.  Seven smashed windows seemingly vindicated a windowless design. 

Other problems were reported that month: peeling paint and crumbling caulking caused by a mad rush to open after a cold spring, along with staff gripes that the wading pool was too small; the shallow end of the swimming pool was too deep; and a lot of people were climbing the latticed brick enclosure wall and entering the pool without “taking their required showers.”  A subsequent article registered complaints by Eastern Market and 7th Street vendors about visits by children turned away from full-up pools.  A neighborhood realtor railed, “There is no supervision for the kids waiting outside. Where are the ping pong tables?”

Almost miraculously, this litany ended after two brief closings for repairs and new policies.

A wall of historical posters at Rumsey commemorates the Black History Invitational Swim Meet, an important event inaugurated here in 1987. Photo: Hilary Russell.

DC’s first integrated, year-round public pool earned another distinction by hosting the Black History Invitational Swim Meet, co-founded in 1987 by Dr. William Rumsey, former director of the DC Department of Recreation and Parks.  By 1990, when the building closed for four months of renovations, it was deemed to be “the most active and popular” pool among 45 in the city; the only one “open from early morning until early evening every day and some weekends.”

A second major renovation occurred in 2003.  Another is imminent, along with a potential redesign.  Perhaps this time the landscaping budget won’t be cut and exterior beautification ignored, an issue Dick Wolf bemoaned way back in 1969.  And let’s hope any redesign is informed by how important this building was and is for Capitol Hill residents and by convincing evidence that a supremely gifted and internationally recognized architect had a huge hand in its design.


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2 responses to “Part II. A Deep Dive into Rumsey Pool’s Turbulent Beginning

  1. Anne

    How about talking to real swimmers about their needs…hmmm (Ed. Note. There will be community meetings before any renovation is undertaken and an opportunity to raise user’s concerns directly with the design team.)

  2. muskellunge

    Kind of blows my mind that they started the Black History Meet in this modest pool. In its current form, that meet completely fills Takoma Aquatic center, with overflow at the adjacent community center. It hosts about 1200 swimmers and 2500 spectators, plus coaching, staff, officials, vendors, and catering. By 7 AM on a cold Sunday in February, all of the parking within a mile of the pool is gone. Teams come from all over the US, and it is supported by Olympic alumni/ae.
    I love the airy windows above, but I echo Anne’s sentiments — the design is terribly dated. The brick-enclosed grounds are never used, the locker rooms too small, and the wading pool is an adornment. There is no spectator space. There is a lot of room that is not well used, enough to expand the pool to 50 m.