The construction of city-run public bathhouses in Cleveland began around the turn of the twentieth-century as municipal leaders became concerned about health and sanitation in the city’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods. Many of Cleveland’s poorest residents at this time did not have bathtubs in their residences. According to an 1899 survey, only one bathtub existed for every 600 Cleveland homes. Even those who did have tubs could not always afford to heat bath water and thus used their tubs for storage instead of bathing. Aside from improving sanitation, the proponents of public baths believed that public bathhouses would help teach middle-class American values to the city’s newly-arrived European immigrants. Personal cleanliness, they argued, would instill self-respect and improve moral character, making better American citizens out of immigrants.
The city opened its first bathhouse in 1904 at 1609 Orange Avenue and initially charged $.02 for a bath or shower. New bathhouses soon opened in other immigrant neighborhoods, including the Lincoln Park Baths in Tremont in 1921. Between 1904 and 1921, ten public bathhouses were opened and run by the City of Cleveland, the Lincoln Park facility being the last. Interestingly, the term “bathhouse” is a misnomer since few (and eventually, none) of the houses contained bathtubs. They did, however, have dozens of showers—generally separate stalls on the main floor for men and women, and open children’s shower rooms in the basement, separated by gender.
A 1920 Cleveland Foundation survey marveled at the fact that 482,000 baths and showers had been taken at the four bathhouses that had been built by 1918. The report rhetorically (and clumsily) asked, “May we not assume that these 482,000 baths were by all odds better baths, by reason of having been taken under public showers, than they would have been if taken under the multifariously improvised arrangements that have to be resorted to in the many homes, in the more congested districts, that lack bath tubs?”
However, Cleveland bathhouses (Lincoln Park included) provided more than bathing services. Many contained gymnasiums, swimming pools, playgrounds, meeting spaces, and community clinics. In this way, the bathhouses took on the role of community centers, where neighborhood residents could interact with one another and participate in enriching activities outside of their home, school or workplace.
Despite the fact that bathers paid a fee to use the baths, the bathhouses always cost the city money to operate. In 1918, for example, Cleveland’s four bathhouses took in $17,000 while expenditures came to around $56,000. And although bathhouses in Cleveland went through a period of expanded use and importance during the Great Depression, actual bathing declined in the years following World War II as indoor plumbing and private, in-home bathrooms proliferated. Declining revenues and high operational costs in the aging facilities eventually led all of the city’s bathhouses to close by 1954.
Like many government buildings built in the early 20th Century, elegance, style and a sense of power, durability and stability were central. For example, Lincoln Park Baths’ terra cotta tile roof and round-arched clerestory (an upper portion of a wall containing windows for supplying natural light to a building) clearly were meant to emulate an elite Roman bathhouse. The building’s surface is raised/textured stucco, framed by Doric columns and ornamented with three carved, raised fish murals: one on either side of the door and one over it. Other ornamental touches include smaller, sculpted, nautilus shell murals; “egg and dart” molding below the roofline; and a highly inviting central walkway connecting the front and back.
Recast in the 1930s as Lincoln Park Recreation Center, the facility remained open as Tremont, and many other inner-city neighborhoods, fell further into poverty, neglect, and disrepair. Shower facilities remained in the building’s basement, but plumbing was removed from the upper floors and replaced by open space for meetings, ping pong, pocket billiards, basketball, boxing, medical dispensaries, boy scout meetings, dances, drama and orchestra rehearsals.
By the early 1980s, the Lincoln Park Recreation Center’s condition was such that an estimated $600,000 was required for plumbing, wiring, masonry and window replacement, and to reduce hazards of asbestos insulation and repair a leaking roof. Unable to swallow these costs, the facility closed its doors in March 1984.
Only two years later, Westlake-based Zaremba Company bought the building with intentions to make it the anchor of an imaginative and aggressive plan that also included “six free-standing townhouses and a duplex.” The structure’s reincarnation was underway. In 1996, redevelopment was complete and the Lincoln Park Baths/Recreation Center was now the Lincoln Park Condominiums. Three floors consisting of four units were available: two three-story units totaling 2065 square feet and two single-story units of 1094 square feet each. Four years later, one of the larger units sold for $269,000—roughly ten times the median price of a typical Tremont residence, and precisely ten times as much as the entire appraised value of the facility prior to its renovation.