December 16, 2013

Beloved WPA-Built Public Pool at the University of New Hampshire is Threatened

  • By: Katherine Flynn
The pool has provided a place for community members to cool off for 75 years. Credit: Kenny Rotner, FUNHOP
The pool has provided a place for community members to cool off for 75 years.

“Magical” is how Kenny Rotner, a Durham, N.H. resident for 27 years, describes the outdoor pool at the University of New Hampshire. Built in 1938 by Civilian Conservation Corps workers and funded by the WPA, the roughly 44,000-square-foot body of water is one of the oldest public pools in the nation. With a floor of quarried local granite flecked with green and silver, the space has served as a one-of-a-kind spot for swimming lessons, socializing and summer fun for generations.

Recent concerns about whether the pool adheres to modern safety standards, however, have caused the University of New Hampshire to announce possible plans to dismantle it, pitting preservationists and community members against the UNH administration.

“It’s a small town, and people don’t often come out for things,” Rotner, a local doctor whose daughter learned to swim at the pool, explains. But the possibility of losing the beloved recreational facility and gathering place struck a nerve with Durham residents, inspiring letter-writing campaigns, fundraisers and sit-ins.

This past fall, the pool was named to the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance’s Seven to Save list, and Rotner and other members of the Friends of the UNH Pool, or FUNHOP, hope that it will receive a historic designation from the state in the near future.

Durham residents sunbathe at the Outdoor Pool in 1961. Credit: Kenny Rotner, FUNHOP
Durham residents sunbathe at the Outdoor Pool in 1961.

Erika Mantz, director of media relations at UNH, explains that the university is still in discussion with the town of Durham about whether to update the current facility (which the town would be financially responsible for,) or replace it with a new pool, which would be a third of the size of the current swimming space.

"With cost estimates, it's not something the town could take on," Rotner says of the financial burden of giving the pool an upgrade. A recent review by the Department of Environmental Services (which regulates and monitors public pools in the state) outlined ways in which the pool could be updated, but didn't recommend its closure.

While UNH has cited concerns about the safety of the pool's water circulation and filtration systems, it has also stated that the swimming facility's dark bottom makes it difficult for lifeguards to monitor. Mantz says that the university’s legal counsel and insurers have advised them against continuing to operate the facility without modernizing it.

Dismantling the pool would also free up space for expansion of the campus's Hamel Recreation Center, and some FUNHOP members have voiced skepticism about whether the university is blocking preservation efforts for that purpose.

The pool in 1940. Credit: Kennry Rotner, FUNHOP
The pool in 1940

When UNH made its initial announcement late last June, Rotner and community member Dudley Dudley organized a group of pool lovers to speak at a town council meeting urging the council to take action to encourage the university to keep the public space open, and the FUNHOP group was born.

Rotner is also a member of a working group formed by the university to attempt to foster dialogue with both sides. The pool's future remains uncertain, but as of right now, it won't open for the 2014 swimming season.

“The pool really serves as our town center,” Rotner explains. “That’s where our kids learn to safely swim, where people make friends, where people reconnect and talk about the issues of the day.”

“The important thing to recognize is how many people have been involved with our FUNHOP movement," he continues, despite what the outcome may be. “All of us would be disappointed if we didn’t have this pool. The dedication and commitment just reaffirms my sense of the value of community and the good in people. It’s really been a full community effort.”

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


Each year, America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places sheds light on important examples of our nation’s heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

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