Open to all, a historic swimming facility moves forward with the assistance of architect David Woodhouse
Lisa Skolnik -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
When it opened in 1905, Chicago's Davis Square Park was refined in demeanor but revolutionary in spirit. Designed by eminent landscape and building architects of the day, Olmsted Brothers and D.H. Burnham & Co., the park was meant to provide recreational and social services among the stockyard tenements—a grand swimming pool and neoclassical bathhouse being among the park's most prominent features. "The city realized that conditions on the South Side were intolerable, so 10 parks, all unique, were built in one year," says Chicago Park District historian Julia Sniderman Bachrach. "We could never pull it off today."
Because Davis Square Park was truly a rush job done on a strict budget, the buildings were constructed of exposed-aggregate concrete, poured in layers. With a slight surface sparkle produced by tiny bits of incorporated marble, the material was pretty as well as economical. But, explains architect David Woodhouse, "It lacked the steel reinforcing we use today, making it very susceptible to cracks." And crack it did. The bathhouse's poolside wall came tumbling down in 1997. Cinder blocks were used to rebuild it quickly, so as not to interrupt the swimming season, and windows and doors were randomly inserted at haphazard intervals. The result was unsightly and inefficient.
Two years later, the city hired Woodhouse to rehab the entire building. True to the site's history, he was given a tight budget and short deadline. Historically perfect restoration was out of the question. "Aggregate concrete is expensive and time-consuming to use today," he explains. This raised a thought-provoking question: How to accept the change and find a new, better solution?
In the end, he realized he could add something meaningful that wasn't there before. He left the wall predominantly as-is, simply painting it gray and filling door openings with glass block. Then he hid the entire elevation behind a screen of fiberglass supported by skinny, curved steel ribs. The translucent material—commonly used to roof factories—doesn't need tinting, won't rust or crack, is easy to clean in the case of graffiti, and costs only $4 a square foot.
The screen's icy translucence, arched stance, and corrugated ripples give the bathhouse a striking update and "veil the harshness of the pool area," says the architect, noting its severe perimeter of iron bars. In addition, the lustrous new presence makes reference to Lake Michigan, a few miles away, imbuing the area with a liberating spirit. Thanks to the reflectivity of the fiberglass, the screen can furthermore be seen as a giant living mural that assumes different moods with the weather and the water of the pool. All of which makes for an amusing paradox. "It's low-maintenance and incredibly cheap, but it looks like an expensive, high-style project," Woodhouse points out. After almost a century of history, Davis Square Park stands in the architectural vanguard once again.