Making a Splash

California residents restore and reopen the historic Plunge pool

Architect Todd Jersey had never worked on a significant historic restoration project, never mind a swimming pool, before he saw a PBS documentary about "the Plunge." Built in 1926, this indoor pool in Richmond, Calif., thrived as a community institution for three-quarters of a century, hosting swimming exhibitions, musical performances, and other events.

"The building itself was fascinating," Jersey says of the Neoclassical structure's observation balconies, fountain, and open truss roof. Just as significant, the pool was never segregated. "It was such a healing space for a multiracial city. Swimming pools are one of the only places where people of every age, every race, came together," Jersey says.

As he learned, the Plunge, owned by the city of Richmond, was already deteriorating when it suffered damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Swimmers continued to come, but the condition of the building eventually caused officials to declare it structurally unstable and shutter the facility in 2001. Two architecture firms estimated that a restoration sympathetic to the building's original design would cost $8.5 million.

 Jersey, the principal of his own firm in nearby Berkeley, decided to help. In 2004, he did a pro bono analysis for the city and suggested he could undertake the project for far less. "Let me see if I can do something creative," Jersey told officials.

So began a partnership between the architect, the city, and a group of long-time patrons who had formed the Save the Richmond Plunge Trust, which helped produce the PBS documentary. Ellie Strauss, executive director of the group, says members "were thrilled" about Jersey's commitment to the project. "You would have to meet him personally to know that this man is a juggernaut. Once he gets something into his head, it will go through," she says.

Strauss first visited the pool, measuring 160 by 60 feet, in the early 1970s. "I'd never seen anything like this other than in pictures," she remembers. "It was this huge expanse of water. It seemed to go on forever."

Not many residents thought that the pool could be restored to its former grandeur, however. "A lot of people kind of patted us on the head and said, 'Well, nice try, but you know you're not going anywhere,' " Strauss says.

Undeterred, she and other trust members helped navigate the bureaucratic web of design review boards and planning commissions after Jersey drafted plans for a comprehensive restoration. Members also raised money through garden tours, dinner theater benefits, memorabilia sales, and on-site outdoor concerts. Combined with city redevelopment funds, revenues from a bond measure, and grants from such organizations as the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation and the California Cultural and Historical Endowment fund, the trust helped raise $7.5 million to finance the project.

Jersey's team then got to work, replacing unstable clay-tile walls with wood-framed stucco and replicating original tilework. Workers also rebuilt the monitor roof, removed in the late 1950s, installing 200 clerestory windows per the original design. John Wehrle, a local muralist, painted a floor-to-ceiling image of a nearby park on an interior wall. The mural, along with the abundant natural light that now flows through  the clerestory windows, almost makes the Plunge feel like an outdoor pool, Strauss says. 

And fulfilling his promise to do something creative, Jersey not only restored the pool but also made it one of the most ecofriendly in the country. He added new ultra-efficient gas pool heaters, a radiant heat system, and a saltwater chlorination system. Solar panels on the roof generate half of the building's power.

"The general public probably just wanted the building open," says retired city engineer Rich Davidson. "But down the line five years, seven years, it's all going to pay for itself," he says. "It's probably one of the greenest recreation buildings around."

The Plunge reopened in August, and residents once again flocked to the pool's warm waters. For Strauss, swimming at the Plunge for the first time in nearly a decade validated all the hard work.  "It's just so exciting," she says. Thanks to Jersey, her group accomplished what many people thought impossible.     

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