July 10, 2013

Local Preservationists Dive Into Saving Decorah, Iowa's 1937 Bathhouse

  • By: David Weible
This 1930s bathhouse and outdoor pool in Decorah, Iowa was saved from a more "modern" replacement.

In 2009, when locals began to consider demolishing the Art Moderne, Edward Novak-designed bathhouse at the Municipal Swimming Pool in Decorah, Iowa in favor of erecting a structure over the existing outdoor pool, Kyrl Henderson decided to do something about it.

“This is the second time this building was threatened,” says Henderson. “[The first time was] in 1983 when a major renovation took place with respect to the pool portion, and there was an effort at that time to demolish and replace the bathhouse with a new ‘modern’ building.”

The bathhouse under construction in 1937.

According to Henderson, one of the qualms that the building's opponents had was about the lack of rooftops over the shower and changing areas, which exposed them to the elements.

“[But] this is one of the more genius design aspects of the bathhouse because it’s only open during fair weather,” Henderson points out, “so the amount of chemicals and the amount of cleaning that has to be done of this area is one-tenth of what it would otherwise be because it’s open air. There’s no mold; there’s no mildew. It’s not a germ factory; it’s not a Petri dish.”

Beyond the simple but ingenious design of the bathhouse, the building is significant because of the fact that it’s been in continual use by the community ever since its completion in 1937.

The swimming pool, wading pool, and bathhouse in 1938.

“It’s also important because of its role as the local manifestation of the WPA,” Henderson points out, referring to the Works Progress Administration, the government agency that built the bathhouse and helped to create jobs through similar projects during the Great Depression.

Just days after the community began discussing the bathhouse’s demolition in 2009, and with the help of Gregg Narber, then a professor of history at nearby Luther College who performed the research, Henderson wrote a history and summary of the importance of the bathhouse. Their work was published in the local newspaper, the Decorah Journal, which Henderson credits for telling both sides of the issue, and helped to turn the tide in favor of preserving the historic structure.

The Decorah bathhouse and pool today.

But instead of being satisfied with the simple preservation of the bathhouse, Henderson went on to apply for a grant with Iowa's historic preservation office, eventually securing nearly $5,000 of funding to write the nomination for listing the structure on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination was approved in January of 2012, and Henderson, along with other local preservationists, celebrated the unveiling of a National Register plaque this past June.

“The city of Decorah and the parks department have done a pretty amazing job of keeping this building up,” says Henderson. “I’ll go over there this afternoon for a swim and I’ll change in this building. It really is a strong community asset.”

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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