• Barton Springs Pool represents the heart of Texas swimming culture. People from all walks of life cool off and socialize in the natural spring water. - photo by Alex George via Unsplash

Public swimming pools are some of Texas’ most beloved — and endangered — cultural assets. How do we preserve them?

Nothing soothes the burn of the infamous Texas sun quite like taking a dip in the nearest swimming pool. Texans of all ages flock to public pools during the summer months — on the hottest days of the year, it certainly seems as though everyone in the city must be at your neighborhood pool. Despite the prominent role of swimming pools in Texas culture, these community landmarks have been in decline for some time. Many Texas pools are in a state of disrepair and neglect, suffering from underfunding and low attendance  rates. In a time when unregulated third places (social environments outside of one’s work or home) are fast disappearing, public pools provide valuable space for socialization and open-ended recreation. However, if we wish to preserve the future of our swimming pools, we must first turn a critical eye to their past. 

Municipal pools got their start in the northern United States during the late 19th century, when it became clear that swimming in man-made pools was much safer than splashing around in any of the highly polluted bodies of water surrounding the nation’s most populated cities. Swimming pools became increasingly common during the Progressive Era but functioned primarily as public baths and exercise facilities. At that time, pools were segregated along class lines, guided by the belief that members of the working class were inherently dirtier than middle- and upper-class swimmers. Men and women were also separated in the name of public decency; they visited the pool on alternate days or used different facilities altogether. 

While the first municipal pools were built to serve a distinctly utilitarian purpose, they gradually became places for socialization and entertainment. Deep Eddy Pool in Austin — the oldest pool in the state — was one of the earliest “destination” pools. Located on private land when it opened in 1902, it operated not only as a swimming attraction but also as a carnival ground. Open to the public, the bathing beach and park offered many amenities, including a zip line and a merry-go-round. The city of Austin purchased the property in 1935. Shortly after, a flood took out most of the pool’s amenities, and only some of the facilities — like the bathhouse — were rebuilt. Today, Deep Eddy operates more like a traditional pool but remains a treasured local landmark for recreation and socialization. 

The golden age of swimming pools took place during the 1920s and 1930s. Widespread economic prosperity in the Roaring Twenties saw the rise of resort-style pools like Deep Eddy, and even smaller public pools were designed with leisure in mind. Sunbathing beaches and picnicking lawns grew in popularity as swimming pools became a place for social interaction and community bonding. Gender segregation at public pools ended as American culture transitioned to promoting family values and community sociability. However, gender desegregation led to a rise in racial segregation at public pools; preventing contact between Black men and white women in the intimate setting of a swimming pool became essential in the eyes of many local lawmakers. Thus, as the community-building function of the swimming pool grew, the community itself became more exclusive as middle- and upper-class whites closed ranks. 

Swimming pool construction boomed in the interwar years, leading to a period of architectural experimentation. City engineer Wesley Bintz left his job in 1923 to specialize in swimming pool design. His unique style of above-ground pool featured changing areas located underneath the pool deck itself, reducing the amount of land needed for construction. These pools were cheaper to build and required less excavation than typical below-ground designs, which made them popular across the nation. The most distinctive characteristic of Bintz pools was their rounded shape, which promoted leisure and socialization rather than exercise, increasing the opportunity for pools to serve as community centers. The city of Beaumont at one point had three Wesley Bintz swimming pools, all constructed during the golden age of pool design. Sadly, the Alice Keith Park Swimming Pool — the last Bintz pool in Beaumont — was demolished in 2002 due to lack of funding and increasing decay.

Swimming pools became the cornerstone of a cultural identity focused on socialization, keeping communities linked at a time when urbanization and industrialization were driving people apart. Fighting against the rising tide of consumerism that began in the 1920s, swimming pools were one of the only places where consumption was not a necessary part of public activity. Attempts to commercialize pools were largely unsuccessful, so most swimming locations remained public rather than for profit. By removing the expectation to spend money while participating in the local community, pools facilitated the formation of a shared community identity without the influence of advertisements, media, or consumer envy. 

During the Great Depression, hundreds of new pools were built every year with the help of federal aid. Pool construction carried out by the Works Progress Administration and the Civil Works Administration provided much-needed jobs but also brought joy to countless communities during this time of hardship. Many of Texas’ most iconic pools received federal aid during the Great Depression, including Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale. The San Solomon Springs was the center of life for Indigenous  groups and farmers long before the park existed but was little known outside of the Balmorhea area. The State Parks Board acquired the land in 1934, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built the park between 1935 and 1940. The CCC created a massive pool fed by the springs, turning Balmorhea into a vacation destination. As a state park, the pool at Balmorhea is less subject to decline than the average public pool, but intensive repairs and consistent maintenance are necessary to keep the facility safe and sanitary. 

After World War II, the fight to desegregate swimming facilities across the nation began in earnest. In the South, pools were often openly segregated, and those not restricted by law were socially segregated through racially motivated violence and harassment. Purposeful segregation often happened through urban planning; city planners placed pools in neighborhoods with a homogeneous racial makeup in an effort to discourage interracial socialization. The public pools built in Black neighborhoods were much smaller than the resort-style pools located in majority-white areas, and typically had no leisure space at all. Hostile architecture and concrete construction returned these pools to the Progressive Era ideal of a functional public bath rather than a community recreation center. 

Most public pools in Texas were not legally desegregated until 1963 and remained a point of contention throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Barton Springs Pool in Austin became a site of protest after high school senior Joan Means Khabele defied segregation rules by jumping into the pool at a school picnic in 1960, becoming the first Black person to enter the pool. Her act of protest initiated a movement of weekly “swim-ins” that lasted the entire summer. The swim-ins garnered outside support as Austinites rallied to push local authorities to remove the segregation policy. Barton Springs was officially desegregated in 1962, making it one of the first integrated pools in the state. 

In many cases, desegregation led to “white flight” from public pools to private clubs. These swim clubs controlled entry with a fee and residential requirement, often enforced for the purpose of racial exclusion. The number of residential pools also began to skyrocket as new building techniques made home pools affordable for the middle class. Swimming at home restricted socialization to friends and family, reinforcing domestic culture and individualism. The value of public pools as a part of community life was all but lost when middle- and upper-class whites retreated from public pools, causing cities to begin undervaluing the pools themselves. Reduced budgets meant decreased maintenance, and many public pools fell into disrepair once it became clear that white swimmers preferred private pools. This was an effective resegregation of pools along class lines, signifying the beginning of the end for public pools. 

A nationwide recession in the 1970s slowed pool construction significantly, and attendance at existing public pools began to drop — continuing to do so for the next 30 years. In a return to the utilitarian typology of the Progressive Era, the few pools that were built in the second half of the 20th century lacked the recreational amenities of their predecessors. The trend of “civic disengagement” and widespread retreat from public life — initiated by the legal desegregation of public pools across the nation — continued. Pool closures became common by the end of the 20th century; in 1984, the Dallas City Council closed six of its previously popular pools due to low usage, and in 2000 the city resorted to offering free days for the entire summer to encourage residents to visit municipal pools. In the 1990s, traditional swimming pools began to be replaced by “spraygrounds” and aquatic centers. At Lake Highlands North Park, the sprayground was such a success that Dallas made plans to replace additional pools with spray parks, which are more cost-effective and attract more visitors by mimicking the features of a water park. 

As public pools continue to decline, their loss can be felt in a multitude of ways. Pools provide the opportunity for casual community engagement by removing many of the socioeconomic barriers that prevent such interaction elsewhere. Poolside activities rarely involve spending money, and municipal swimming pools are blessedly free of advertisements and the media. Swimming pools are an informal social space in which a collective identity can be developed through group activities, socialization, and shared experiences. They provide a place for unstructured play for children (and adults), which helps establish social norms. At public pools, there is no expectation for the visitor to actually do anything; they are one of the last true third places in contemporary life. The intangible benefits of the public pool cannot be replaced by a water park or private club, but many pools are struggling to attract visitors in today’s fast-paced and consumer-driven world. 

The city of Austin’s pool system — like so many others — is currently fighting to make ends meet. Most of Austin’s pools were built between 1930 and 1990, meaning that even the newest pool is approaching its suggested 30-year expiration date. No new pools have been built since the 1990s, as most of the money received from the city goes towards maintaining and repairing existing pools. The city runs 33 public pools, but not all of them stay open during the summer; aging pump systems frequently break, causing pools to shut down until they can be fixed. Realizing that temporary fixes were no longer an acceptable solution, the Austin City Council passed a resolution in 2017 that created the Aquatic Master Plan. The plan provided a map to a sustainable future for Austin’s pools, including increased maintenance funding and public-private partnerships. It also recognized that the Austin pool system is still being affected by the infamous segregation line drawn along Interstate 35 in 1928. 

Some of the most popular pools in the city are also the most deteriorated. Pools in East Austin have not been as well maintained due to a historic lack of resources and reliable infrastructure but still have high demand amongst residents. New pools are being planned for underserved areas of the city, and there is to be a public process for future decommissioning of pools, giving residents a voice. The city has looked to Bartholomew Pool — renovated between 2009 and 2014 — as a model for future pool improvements. Pool usage tripled after repairs were made, indicating that there is in fact a demand for public pools, if only the city is able to maintain them. 

Texas’ unique swimming culture extends far beyond man-made pools. The seemingly endless Texas summer drives thousands of people to natural swimming holes, where cold spring water provides relief from the heat. Swimming holes offer a chance for visitors to immerse themselves in the natural world. During the Jim Crow era, many local swimming holes served as an alternative to whites-only municipal swimming pools. These natural springs were also often places of spiritual significance and ritual for Indigenous peoples. The continued usage of these same swimming locations over time has created cultural landscapes that carry a history of their own. To ensure that this history may be passed on to future generations, existing landscape features ought to be preserved to the greatest extent possible. These natural elements provide visitors with both passive and active exposure to green space, serving as wildlife habitats and performing an essential role in the watershed system. There is a pressing need to preserve and restore the riparian ecosystems at frequently used swimming holes through resiliency-focused, site-specific design efforts that target both cultural and natural components. 

Natural swimming holes are the pride of many towns: Jacob’s Well and Blue Hole in Wimberley, Las Moras Springs in Brackettville, Comal Springs in New Braunfels, and Barton Springs and Hamilton Pool in Austin. Each one has a special place in the Texas vernacular, but all are currently threatened by climate change. Record-breaking temperatures in 2023, paired with reduced rainfall, sent the state into a drought that dried up several of these treasured landmarks and reduced many others to critical levels. Population growth also puts a strain on swimming holes, with urban expansion requiring more and more groundwater to be pumped for human use. Texas’ natural swimming holes are in danger of extinction, and the recent drought has forced many Texans to confront this reality face-to-face. Fortunately, seeing their beloved springs in danger has resulted in a promising surge of activism amongst swimming hole enthusiasts across the state. 

Regional specificity and long-standing traditions are key components of Texas’ pervasive swimming hole culture, inspiring love and loyalty among locals. Although every place is different, each swimming hole provides a connection to nature and plentiful space for socialization and community-building. These innate qualities of a Texas swimming hole may be transferable to the contemporary municipal pool, where natural features and social areas have largely been removed. The reintroduction of leisure-based design — rather than design for exercise or spatial efficiency — could offer programmatic flexibility that supports open-ended community interaction. Each existing municipal pool has its own distinct cultural identity, but this identity may not be recognized or known by anyone outside of the local community. Design and renovation that acknowledge and honor the ongoing cultural landscape of a swimming pool through signage, aesthetic choices, or programming could be a way to re-engage community members with their public pools. 

At its core, a public pool is a place for recreation and socialization. Through unstructured interaction, community members from all walks of life share in the creation of a collective identity. As a place free of advertisements and consumerism, pools are a third space in which open-ended play and relaxation prevail, allowing community members to develop a set of shared interests and values that strengthen social bonds beyond the pool. In their quest to preserve swimming pools as cultural centers and counteract decades of decline, municipal governments, designers, and community organizers alike may find hope in the enduring connection between Texans and their swimming holes. 

Abigail Thomas works at McKinney York Architects in Austin.

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