December 14, 2020

Purposefully Built: Helen Gould’s Pool Building

Of all of Lyndhurst’s owners, Helen Gould made the most indelible mark on the estate and its history. Born in 1868, she was the eldest daughter of railroad tycoon and millionaire Jay Gould. Lyndhurst, now a National Trust Historic Site, served as her family’s summer residence outside of New York City and provided the family access to fresh air and a life away from Gilded Age society.

By the end of 1892 both of Helen’s beloved parents were deceased, and at the age of 24—with four brothers and a sister—she found herself the caretaker and keeper of the family trust. Until her youngest siblings could come of age, she became Lyndhurst’s steward, formally purchasing the estate in 1899.

Helen Gould, second from the right (in white sweater with dark trim) stands with her two nieces (on either side of her), friends, and family outside the newly constructed pool building, photo c. 1911.

photo by: Lyndhurst Archives at Westchester County Historical Society (WCHS)

Helen Gould, second from the right (in white sweater with dark trim), stands with her two nieces (on either side of her), friends, and family outside the newly constructed pool building, photo c. 1911.

Helen immediately begins to re-shape the property by adding buildings to the grounds: a Bowling Alley in 1894, a Dog Kennel in 1897, and a laundry facility in 1910. These new buildings would serve her family and her charitable endeavors as a young philanthropist. There was a sewing school for young local girls in the Bowling Alley, a cooking school for boys in the Kennel building, and an educational space for Lyndhurst staff in the laundry facility.

Around 1911, Helen Gould added a final building to the Lyndhurst estate. In the northeast corner of the property that used to be a pear orchard, she built a 140 by 60-foot masonry pool house in the style of a Roman bath.

Before, during, and after its construction, newspapers of the period speculated about “Helen Gould’s Swimming Pool” and “Helen’s Bath.” True to herself, Helen Gould was not building a pool solely for private use, but for those in the community to come and enjoy—especially young girls. Helen consistently championed the opportunities and independence for girls and women by utilizing her fortune and the Lyndhurst estate. Much like the other buildings Helen added to Lyndhurst, the Pool Building continued the tradition of serving the family and the community with both a private and public use.

A postcard of “Shepard’s Swimming Pool”, c. 1913.

photo by: Lyndhurst Archives

A postcard of “Shepard’s Swimming Pool,” c. 1913.

A rare colorized photograph of the interior of the Lyndhurst Pool building c. 1915.

photo by: Lyndhurst Archives

A rare colorized photograph of the interior of the Lyndhurst Pool Building c. 1915.

Lyndhurst’s Pool Building

The Pool Building at Lyndhurst is grand in its purpose and its presentation. The outside is adorned with columns and a trio of French doors with grand fan lights. It encompasses an entry hall, both girl’s and boy’s dressing rooms in the wings, detailed plasterwork throughout, crisp subway tile, parquet floors, and beadboard walls.

The pool area itself, a massive 70 by 35-foot swimming space, is flanked by Doric columns, marble tile floors, and was once filled with palms courtesy of the Lyndhurst Greenhouse. Early interior photographs show the water as dark and murky, due to the pool’s use of the village water supply and a spring-fed pond across the road for filling. This water was only filtered and heated as chlorination was not widely used, resulting in the brownish-hued pool water. Coal boilers and pumps in the basement helped to fill, drain, and heat the water.

As newspaper articles from the period suggest, the pool was to be open for the use of local children, specifically young girls who had little opportunity to learn to swim due to social conventions of the time. The Saratogian from March 7, 1911 states that “Miss Gould has evolved this plan not so much for her own pleasure as for the health and amusement of many schoolgirls in whom she has taken a keen interest.”

Helen already provided local girls with the opportunity to learn sewing skills for their own economic benefit, so the pool would further enrich their lives by letting them partake of an activity not previously open to them. Helen provided a swimming instructor and as was her habit, offered prizes to those who excelled.

Helen Gould’s charity would never be limited though, and she would have the Lyndhurst Pool open for young boys as well. Helen planned to “bring poor children here from New York [City] and give them a chance to enjoy the pool on certain days.” For an amenity usually reserved for the wealthy and entitled, the Lyndhurst pool saw a much different demographic that made it stand out.

Photographic records of the pool’s recreational use are limited to the 1920s. It is not known if and when public access to the Pool Building switched to solely private family use. These period photographs showcase family and friends enjoying the amenities: a diving board and a lifeguard’s rowboat, with historical documentation highlighting little moments such as the rescue of a beloved dog from the waters by the lifeguard. Since its construction the building was embraced by the people who used it.

When Helen Gould died in December 1938, the pool was shuttered.

A New Life

Following Helen’s death, her younger sister Anna assumed ownership of Lyndhurst, and by the early 1940s there was only limited access and use of the building to staff. Photographic evidence left behind depicts the outside facade as it slowly becomes overshadowed and overgrown.

Upon Anna’s death in 1961, The National Trust for Historic Preservation was deeded the Lyndhurst property, and for the first time since the 1920s, photographs reveal the state of the interior of the Pool Building after 20 years of little to no use. The fragile glass roof was destroyed by overhanging tree damage and ironically, this building, which was always meant to contain water, was slowly eroding from outside leaks.

To save the building, the National Trust performed crucial stabilization work in the 1980s. It included masonry repair to the walls, replacement of iron truss structure, and capping the roof to prevent leaks. Additional work was necessary to fully stabilize the structure, but at this juncture, it was shuttered yet again. At the time, as a building with a traditionally singular purpose, additional uses were difficult to identify. There were thoughts of creating a theater space or an event hall, but structural and financial limitations prevented any from coming to fruition.

In 2017, Lyndhurst staff decided to focus restoration and stabilization efforts on the Pool Building. After a thorough cleaning and assessment, roof leaks were addressed, unstable floors were re-installed, and safety features were put in place.

While there is no exact plan for the full-time use of the building, today, it is safe enough for visitors to tour. Currently, it houses a contemporary art installation from the 2019 season, with it on view when the site re-opens after the pandemic in 2021.

As such a large and imposing space, it affords Lyndhurst a wide range of opportunities for use—from film and television shooting locations, exhibition space, and casual visitation from those curious to learn its history.

The Pool Building, saved from total ruin, stands as a testament to Helen Gould, and will help enrich the story of her, her ties to the community, and the Lyndhurst Estate.

The building will likely never be used as a swimming pool again, but as Helen conceived it as a building with purpose, it will find that again.

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Emma Gencarelli is the film, photography, & collections assistant at Lyndhurst.

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