by James Smith
The name Fleishhacker invoked visions of fun at the beach—Fleishhacker Playground for amateur baseball, Fleishhacker Zoological Gardens, and Fleishhacker Pool. “When I was a kid, we would dive off the top platform. It must’ve been thirty feet up.”--Robert W. Smith, father of the author. Fleishhacker Pool was an attraction that was unique to San Francisco. It rightfully claimed its status as the world’s largest heated salt-water pool. The pool measured 1000 feet in length by 160 feet across at the middle section and 100 feet across at each end. The depth graduated from 3 feet at the west end to 15 feet under the diving platform. It held 6,500,000 gallons of filtered
seawater pumped in from the Pacific Ocean and could heat 2800 gallons a minute from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool maintained the constant 72 degrees required for A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union) Swim Meets. Unfortunately, when the ambient air temperature is in the 60s or lower with a damp breeze coming off Ocean Beach, that’s a cold 72 degrees.
Fleishhacker Pool was a gift to San Francisco by financier and city Parks Commissioner Herbert Fleishhacker. He also made the initial donations of land and money for the playground and zoo. The pool was built to attract athletic competition to the city and because the waters off Ocean Beach are consistently cold year around. John McLaren, designer of Golden Gate Park and park superintendent, conceived the plan, receiving strong backing from the Parks Commission and Mr. Fleishhacker, its President.
The Fleishhacker Municipal Swimming Pool opened on April 22, 1925, as host to a national A.A.U. Swim Meet with five thousand attending the event to watch the competition. Johnny Weissmuller, the world champion freestyle swimmer, represented the Illinois Athletic Club. He later went on to a career in action films--Tarzan being his most notable role. Weissmuller made a number of later appearances at Fleishhacker, always drawing a crowd. San Francisco adopted him as one of their own. Other celebrities appearing often at Fleishhacker Pool included Ann Curtis, who set a number of world records, and movie star Esther Williams. She first appeared in Billy Rose’s Aquacade opposite Weissmuller in the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island.
The pool opened to the general public on May 1, 1925, with 5000 bathers paying 25 cents, 15 cents for swimmers under 12 years of age. That fee purchased admission, use of the grounds, including a large dressing room with showers, plus the loan of a bathing suit and large towel, sterilized between uses. A San Francisco Chronicle news report estimated that fewer than half the bathers could swim, but all seemed to have a great time. The pool had 12 lifesavers on duty, as well as a number of life saving rowboats on patrol. It also sported a tree-sheltered beach, a cafeteria, and a childcare area in the main building.
Mayor Rolph named the entire complex for Fleishhacker in recognition of his work for and his dedication to the people and especially the children of San Francisco. The city strongly promoted the pool, sponsoring athletic competitions and exhibitions. Still, the pool failed to pay its own way. Ocean Beach was rarely much warmer than 70 degrees, even if the water was 72 degrees, which everyone doubted. After the novelty wore off, attendance fell, with the exception of special events.
Plans were drawn and redrawn to scale down the size of the pool to save heating and overhead costs. The pool remained the largest in the world, and in 1943, while American troops used it for training toward amphibious beach assaults, politicians were carving it up. Nothing came of the politician’s efforts except the installation of a chain link fence in an attempt to funnel people through the pay gates. Under-funded, Fleishhacker Pool slowly slid into a state of mild disrepair. A January 1971 storm proved to be the final blow. The outflow pipe that disposed of the used pool water collapsed, and the cost of repair exceeded the department’s ability to pay. An attempt to convert it to fresh water proved futile due to uncontrollable algae growth, and the pool closed forever in June of that year. The concrete was broken out and the hole filled with rubble and topsoil. The city granted the land to the San Francisco Zoo (formerly Fleishhacker Zoological Gardens). The intention was to add badly needed parking and a restaurant, but to this day they lack the funds to undertake this project.
James R. Smith, a fourth-generation native of San Francisco, is the author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007).
Historic photos courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.