The Improbable Persistence of Swimming Pools Built in the Ocean

The natatorium closes off part of the sea—but not without the constant intervention of humans.

Every year around this time, a small group of preservationists in Honolulu rally together to try to save a ruin of architectural history that's as improbable as it is beautiful: the Waikiki Natatorium, a massive Beaux Arts swimming pool that has been sitting in the ocean along the south shore of Oahu for the past 87 years.

Yes, there's an Olympic sized swimming pool built into the Pacific Ocean. The pool, framed from the shore by an enormous decorative arched entryway, was built to honor the memory of World War I veterans. The entryway is a well-known landmark. Locals gather there to swim at a small beach adjacent to the structure, and to barbecue in the grass nearby. But the pool itself has been closed since 1979, and the debate over what to do about it—raze or preserve—has become a sort of microcosm of Hawaii politics, one of those perennial issues that brings up larger cultural questions about land use and the fundamental values of a place.

Saving the pool would be costly in perpetuity; the ocean is constantly eating away at it. Destroying the pool would be both expensive and environmentally risky. But then there's the question of history.

What should we save anyway?

And what do we lose when we destroy a piece of the past?

Modernity is a reliable antagonist to preservation. The promise of efficiency—primarily of cost and space—is what tore down New York City's Penn Station, the classic example of a demolition decision that never should have been made. And it's easy to see that the once-grand train station—replaced with the depressing underground lair we know today—belonged to the same era as the Waikiki Natatorium:

The Waikiki Natatorium's main arch, 2013. (Adrienne LaFrance)

The old Penn Station, 1915 (Library of Congress)

The old Penn Station opened in 1910 and was torn down in 1963. Incidentally, that was the year that many officials in Hawaii started pushing for demolition of the swimming pool war memorial. Half a century later, most of those officials have died, but the Natatorium remains.

This week the Natatorium was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit preservationist group that has long supported saving the memorial. But such designations in the past have done little to convince people that the Natatorium should survive. Both the governor of Hawaii and mayor of Honolulu have said they support demolition.

I've always been fond of the Natatorium—not just because I like the way it looks, but because of how extraordinary it is that the structure exists at all. It's impossible to imagine engineers today opting to construct a monumental Beaux Arts structure in the path of relentless waves (and on prime real estate for hotel development, no less). But even in its own time, the Natatorium was meant to be something unusual: a living memorial. Its architect, Lewis Parsons Hobart, was known for grandeur—he also designed San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. And quite plainly, palais-like saltwater natatoriums and French Gothic cathedrals are just not the kind of things we build anymore.

Today the Waikiki Natatorium is one of just a handful of saltwater natatoriums of its kind left in the world. It wasn't always so.

Open-air saltwater swimming pools once dotted Scotland's coast along the North Sea. Many have been demolished, at least one turned into a parking lot.  San Francisco had the Sutro Baths, built on a beach inlet in 1896 as the world's largest indoor swimming pool. It was filled with steam-heated Pacific ocean water and enclosed in a huge glass structure. You can still see the concrete imprint of where it once stood.

Ruins of the Sutro Baths. (Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Thomas Edison filmed activity at the legendary baths in 1897, the year after the facility opened:

Shoreline ocean pools, or rock pools, can still be found in Australia—the surf washes over simple rectangular seawalls built for lap swimming. Here's a whale carcass that washed into one such pool a few years ago.

But the Waikiki Natatorium wasn't just built for lap swimming. It was designed for spectators. You can't legally get to them anymore, but rows of bleachers face the pool and the expanse of the Pacific beyond it. The Natatorium itself was something of a technological marvel in its time, designed to filter sea water in and out, and complete with a high dive. (Those who remember swimming there tell stories of fish that found their way through the valves and into the lap lanes.) The now-defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin described the Natatorium as a spectacle on its opening night in 1927. Thousands gathered to see the inaugural swim. A live band played a waltz for the first men who dove into the pool.

Duke Kahanamoku, 1915 (Library of Congress)

Among them was Duke Kahanamoku, the iconic surfer and Olympic champion swimmer who was known by The New York Times as "the Honolulu amphibian." Here's how a Star-Bulletin reporter described Kahanamoku's inaugural swim at the pool's opening ceremony on August 24, 1927:

“Duke in the water—flashing through the water—Duke a flaying, kicking object just below the surface—the water seeming to move—not he—water curling in foam from his beating palms. The same old Duke—the same, easy, slithering stroke, no effort—no panting breath—just perfect swimming. The crowd bellows and cheers and shrieks as the swimmer rises dripping from the pool.”

That year, 1927, was something of a turning point in modern Honolulu history. It was then, too, that the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened, a moment that signaled the tourism economy that would emerge—first by steam, then by air—in the coming decades. For those who treasure an older Hawaii—when it was not a state, not a territory, but a kingdom—the development boom of the 1920s and later the 1960s represents the loss of what the islands used to be. Preservation, remember, is all about context. Saving one thing means choosing not to save another.

Waikiki Natatorium, 1930s (Screenshot from eBay)

By the 1930s, the Natatorium already needed renovations, and officials argued over which agencies should be responsible for upkeep. A decade later, World War II changed everything. Early-morning swimmers who may have been at the Natatorium on Sunday, December 7, 1941, would have been able to see the red dots on the wings of Japanese airplanes that flew low overheard en route to Pearl Harbor. Soon after, the U.S. Army took control of the pool, using it for training.

Waikiki Natatorium, 1942 (Screenshot from eBay)

In the post-war years, the Natatorium was used by injured veterans for rehabilitation and by colleges for swim meets. Even after a costly post-war renovation, by the 1960s, the infrastructure was badly crumbling. And in 1979, amid concerns about safety, the pool closed indefinitely. It has been shuttered for 35 long years. The pool's perimeter is now boarded up, so the best way for most people to get a complete look is from above. (Engineers and others have been permitted access from time to time over the years.)

Google Earth

Those who grew up swimming at the Natatorium are growing old themselves. Many of those who long supported saving the pool have died. And so: stories of the old Natatorium are disappearing. And yet the architecture itself contributes to a narrative that is otherwise unavailable. It is a steady, hulking memory of the past that lives with us in the present. In the shadow of the volcano Diamond Head on one side, the Natatorium feels puny and new. But looking the other way, toward the modern hotels that crawl up the coast, the old memorial is like an anchor that keeps a piece of the past from being swept out to sea. In unveiling a new project about learning history through buildings, my editor Alexis Madrigal put it this way: "Buildings endure. They are the will of people made manifest, sublimely. And when we look up at them, we can imagine, concretely, where our ancestors walked..." and, in this case, where they swam.