Louis Kahn's Trenton Bathhouse Isn't the Only One at Risk.
By Tricia Vita | Online Only | Apr. 29, 2005
When the swim club at the Jewish Community Center of the Delaware Valley in Ewing, N.J., near Trenton, opens for the summer, the main attraction will be the Olympic-sized pool. But the club's shower room and changing facility, a National Register-listed bathhouse designed by Louis Kahn in 1955, has been in the public eye since Nathaniel Kahn's Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect: A Son's Journey premiered late last year.
A longtime magnet for students of modern architecture, the Trenton Bathhouse's pyramidal roofs and cruciform layout were inspired by Kahn's sketches of ancient ruins. "If the world discovered me after I designed the Richards Medical Building," the architect once said, referring to a 1958 commission in Philadelphia, "I discovered myself after designing that little concrete block bathhouse in Trenton."
Louis Kahn had been dead for 25 years when his son began filming "a journey to see his buildings and to find whatever was left of him out there." In a poignant scene, Nathaniel Kahn visits the bathhouse with Anne Tyng, an architect in Kahn's office who collaborated on the design. Tyng, who hasn't been back in 40 years, is distressed to find a door that "wasn't here before," among other alterations. She raps on a slate wall that has been painted white. "It's just such a shame," Tyng says in the film.
"There was a circular pebble garden that was taken out rather soon after the building was opened," says Susan Solomon, a Princeton, N.J.-based architectural historian who co-authored the National Register nomination for the site, listed in 1984. Also gone is a mural that evoked "the wave imagery in the mosaics on the floor at Rome's Baths of Caracalla, one of the ancient buildings Kahn loved most," according to a monograph Solomon composed about the bathhouse.
In 1997, Preservation New Jersey, a Trenton-based statewide preservation group, named the site to its annual Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites list, prompted by the JCC's plan to demolish the bathhouse's temple-like structures. Built by Kahn in 1957, the deteriorating pavilions were deemed a safety hazard to the campers. Progress was made in 2000 when the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund provided $23,325 for a historic site management grant, funding a restoration study.
"The major issue with the bathhouse is that it was constructed of very standard, inexpensive materials of the time," says Michael Mills of the Princeton, N.J.-based architectural firm Ford, Farewell, Mills & Gatsch, which completed the study in the spring of 2003. "If Kahn had been thinking of this as a 100- or 200-year old building, he might have provided more moisture protection or hung gutters from those beautiful roofs. At this point, we recommend rebuilding several walls as opposed to repairing them, because the concrete slabs are cracked from the water that has gotten underneath them and frozen."
The restoration study estimates that it would cost $486,000 to repair and rebuild the bathhouse. Mills recommends restoring the ring of pebbles at the center of the design by setting them in concrete so that wheelchairs are able to go over them safely. Another $400,000 is needed to rebuild the day camp pavilions, which have been without roofs for so long that two of the four are "complete redoes," says Mills.
For now, restoration plans are on hold while the JCC considers moving to a brand-new campus in nearby West Windsor, according to a February 1 Trenton Times story. Asked for an update on the situation, Robert Frey, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of the Delaware Valley said, "All options are open. We could conceivably stay here with the day camp and move the community center to West Windsor. We're in the process of meeting with our committees and determining what direction we're going."
Yet Kahn's icon of modern architecture is not the only National Register-listed bathhouse requiring extensive work. In 2003, Arkansas's Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark in Hot Springs National Park, was named to the National Trust's list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The Fordyce bathhouse has been converted into a visitor's center, and the Buckstaff bathhouse is still being used, but six other opulent, turn-of-the-last-century stone structures are vacant and deteriorating. "The big problem with the bathhouses is they all have thermal springs, so the interior deterioration is extremely fast," says Diane East, executive assistant to the superintendent at Hot Springs National Park. "You can almost watch the paint peel because they get very hot in the summer and they're very humid."
But there is good news: in its 2004 budget, Congress appropriated $999,000 to stabilize and modernize the six bathhouses. The work, which began last August, includes structural repairs and the installation of heating and cooling systems to prevent further deterioration. "Another $5 million is in the 2005 budget, so we're hoping to get it," East says.
As for the Trenton Bathhouse, Susan Solomon hopes that appreciation for Kahn's work generated by My Architect will spur restoration efforts. "The film gives people an understanding of how powerful the buildings are," she says. "They also understand this is an architect who built very few things, and to have one of his structures is really significant."
In New Haven, Conn., a two-year, $94 million renovation of Kahn's Yale Art Gallery, the city's first modernist building, began on its 50th anniversary in May of 2003. In 2000, another early commission, a former Jewish Community Center for which the architect designed the facade, was converted into a facility for the Yale School of Art.
If the Trenton-area JCC relocates, Solomon would like to see a university or corporation step in to refurbish the bathhouse as a swim club for the community and day camp for inner city children. "It shouldn't be a monument, " she says.
My Architect's Nathaniel Kahn, who traveled to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Ca., the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Tex., and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to find a father he never knew well, echoes Solomon's concerns that the buildings continue to be used for their original purpose. "They certainly should be restored before it's too late," he says.
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