The Lost Public Baths of New York City

Like Caracalla and Diocletian, the mayors of New York City once also built large public baths– and for many of the same reasons that the emperors had. Michael Minn has a nice survey of the major facilities on his New York page. In the late Victorian period, at the end of the 19th century, industrial Gotham was as much a concentration of unwashed humanity as parts of ancient Rome had been, and many of the city’s residential units were just as lacking in indoor plumbing as those of the ancient world. Something had to be done. New York City’s public baths were less elaborate than those of the Romans: Their interiors were not destined to become lasting architectural marvels; nor were they divided into caldaria, tepidaria, and frigidaria; nor built to impress the city’s rich denizens. Nonetheless, public baths were a significant investment in the city’s urban infrastructure, and evidence of these facilities remains.

In the summers, when the need was highest, the pubic baths of New York City were complemented by public swimming pools and beaches. (Minn describes this at his page, above.) But by the early 20th century, the building code required inclusion of bathrooms in new units, and, over time, the city’s older buildings caught up. Subways and cars also allowed people to commute with minimal exertion and perspiration. Accordingly, the baths closed and the swimming facilities became almost purely recreational. Given today’s worries about carbon and street congestion, I wonder if there might be a new role for some range of public bathing facilities that would allow more people to walk or ride bicycles over longer urban distances— and still arrive presentably.

It’s interesting to see how many echoes of the Classical world coursed through the city-building patterns of America in the late Victorian period. Another oddball bath-related example from New York City is the architecture of the 168th Street IRT subway station (now more than a century old), and its uncanny resemblance– in tile-work, passageways, and barrel-vaulted ceilings— to the internal chambers of ancient Roman baths. Other stations of the same era also borrowed Roman bath elements, though usually more subtly. Presumably, the Beaux-Arts reverence of Classical design had a lot to do with these kinds of echoes: Graeco-Roman elements turn up often in the urban relics of a century ago. Modernists found the echoes of the ancient past too rigid, and in some ways they were. But they also provided a valuable framework and common vocabulary for city-building, and their use invested a long period of our urban architecture with symbolism of the longer cultural traditions to which its builders adhered.