A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California


[Let Summer begin! This week we focus on the role of pools and beaches in American, specifically, SoCal life. On Wed. we’ll look at how L.A.’s African American population demonstrated agency and carved out spaces of leisure for their communities through beaches in early 20th century Southern California. For more on pools check out our review of Jeff Wiltse’s social history on the subject, Contested Waters and our own take on the narrative surrounding New York’s McCarren Park Pool and its connection to NYC’s 20th century history of aquatic leisure. Dive in kids!]

Perhaps you’ve heard the story before. There was once a poor mountaineer, who could barely keep his family fed. One day, “while shooting at some food … up from the ground came some bubblin’ crude.” Indeed, Jed Clampett had discovered “black gold, Texas Tea.” Surprisingly, his “kin folk” advised him the mountains no longer suited he and his family. “They said, ‘Californy is the place you oughtta be.’ So, they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is, Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.” Undoubtedly, the fictional Clampetts enjoyed a surprising pre-reality TV ascension to the elite of Los Angeles symbolized by their Beverly Hills digs and the personification of Southern California cool: the swimming pool.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its proximity to the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, SoCal’s enthusiasm for pool-based recreation knows few bounds. Their ubiquity across the region’s landscape means Southern California swimming pools have embodied a variety of meanings for Angelenos and others. Decadent and grandiose expressions of wealth and power, communal experiences for working class kids and families, and a symbolic reservoir of twentieth century alienation and danger, the pool stands as a testament to the complexity of California life. “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way,” wrote Joan Didion.1 In many ways swimming pools best encapsulate the illusion Didion points to: placid and reflective on the surface, but also dangerous and alienated beneath the calm.

Status Symbol to Malaise

“The history of backyard swimming was written largely in Los Angeles,” noted the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Beginning in 1920 with a Beverley Hills swimming pool at their Pickfair estate, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford could boast of having one of the nation’s largest pools (55 feet in width and 100 feet in length), but newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst set the tone with his T-shaped indoor pool, distinguished by the 24-karat gold tiles into its mosaic styled Art Deco walls, in 1924. Soon after, he added the iconic outdoor Neptune Pool, which, as many suggest, remains the swimming pool to end all swimming pools. Designed by the first female graduate from the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts School and accomplished California architect Julia Morgan, the Neptune Pool’s notoriety stems in large part from its Greco-Roman references: a poolside Greco-Roman temple facade accented by Roman colonnades. The pools stood as part of the legendary La Cuesta Encantada estate in San Simeon, a property that, despite 26 years of continuing labor, never came to completion.

Frank Lloyd Wright constructed the iconic Ennis House in 1924 complete with pool, and Edward Doheny’s waterfall and hillside-laden Beverly Hills pool followed in 1925. Richard Neutra famously replaced a terrace with a pool at the Los Feliz Lovell Health House. When suburban pools exploded nationally in the 1950s and 1960s, one could look back at these early opulent examples and Los Angeles to locate their source.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks canoeing in the swimming pool at Pickfair. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks canoeing in the swimming pool at Pickfair. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Of course, some observers saw excess. In “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), made just as pools expanded nationally in popularity, Billy Wilder employed it as a nod to “old” Hollywood extravagance, but also as a cynical representation of curdled narcissism and selfishness. “Poor dope he always wanted a pool, but in the end he got himself a pool; only the price turned out to be a little high,” anti-hero and gigolo Joe Gillis (William Holden) tells the audience over the opening scene of the film. Gillis’ final ignoble moments, shot three times by crazed and jealous former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), end face down in the very thing, or at least what it symbolized, he wanted so bad.

Yet, while these early pools clearly transmitted a message about grandeur, status and wealth, by the late 1960s and 1970s, the swimming pool’s meaning gained greater complexity. By 1961, reported the Los Angeles Times, no other region in America boasted more swimming pools than Southern California.2 In 1966, over 150,000 swimming pools accounted for seven and one half square miles of the region’s real estate. The same year experts projected 12,000 to 15,000 more pools would add to the amount of real estate “under water.”3

The prevalence of and seemingly universal access across classes to swimming pools in Southern California inspired a series of paintings by English artist David Hockney that captured Los Angeles’ cool exterior and modernist background; but also hinted at alienation in his sunny work. His 1966 painting “Portrait of Nick Wilder” finds a man sitting alone in his apartment complex pool, cool, inert, and expressionless. “A Bigger Splash” (1967), painted one year later, provides evidence of humanity — an empty chair across the pool, the splash created by the diver — but no humans themselves. Even when populated, like his 1972 “Portrait of an Artist (pool with two figures)” the characters express a rigidity at odds with the colors and vibrancy of Hockney’s settings. In the 1972 work, one figure swims submerged beneath the water separate and apart from the individual peering down into the pool over its lip.

Recently, artist Ramiro Gomez Jr. appropriated Hockney’s concept and updated its meaning. In “No Splash”, a Latino worker labors over a pool’s edge, sweeping it to ensure its pristine condition. In this way, Gomez gives visibility and recognition to immigrant labor for its contributions to creating the iconic images associated with the “American Dream”.

''No Splash'' by Ramiro Gomez
”No Splash” by Ramiro Gomez

Interestingly, Hockney’s 1972 painting seems reminiscent of Mike Nichols’ use of the Southern California swimming pool in “The Graduate.” Though he acknowledged as much in the film, Nichols hardly celebrated the pool as a space for extravagance or status. In one scene disaffected college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), at the behest of his father, dons a deep sea diving suit and plunges into the pool. Standing alone at its bottom and isolated from the world above, Nichols captures Braddock, and perhaps the generation’s alienation from their parents, and all that the swimming pool represented.

Then there are the music video-like narratives — one to the tune of the Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” — in which Ben listlessly floats across the water’s surface, imbibing Olympia Beer in the bright Southern California sunshine. When his father rouses him from his existential sleep walking, looking down on his son in the pool, he asks, “Ben, what are you doing?” Ben replies, “Well, I’d say I’m here just drifting in the pool.” Why work so hard in college if all you wanted to do was sit in the pool and drink beer, his father inquires. “You got me,” shrugs Ben. Even at night the pool provides setting. With a dimly lit pool in the background, Benjamin endures a piece of career advice from family friend Mr. Maguire: “I just want to say one word to you … Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Plasticity seems appropriate in a discussion of Southern California pools. More recent films have utilized pools as exuberant celebration and moral hazard. In “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), the pool and Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) place protagonist Bradley Hamilton (Judd Reinhold) in an embarrassing situation when Linda walks into the bathroom catching Bradley in a compromised position. Bradley’s left to ask in an exasperated tone, “Doesn’t anyone knock anymore?” Later in the film, the pool leads to a sexual encounter between Bradley’s sister, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), resulting in her pregnancy.

The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski

In the neo-noir “The Big Lebowski” (1998), the Dude (Jeff Bridges) gazes onto the opulent pool of The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) to see a drunken nihilist porn star Uli Kunkel — a.k.a. Karl Hungus (played by Peter Stormare) — dangerously asleep in a floating chair. The sunbathing beauty Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid) offers Lebowski a sexual favor for cash, leaving the Dude to bemusingly wonder about the location of the nearest ATM.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s depiction of the SoCal pool in “Boogie Nights” (1997) includes euphoria, alienation, and conflict. Dirk Diggler’s initiation into the porn world commences with an epic 1970s pool party basked in sunshine, replete with margaritas, poorly executed dives, and a nighttime visit to the hot tub. In contrast, the opening shot to the 1980s New Year party zooms in on a pool devoid of people, where inside Jack Horner’s home the festivities end with a tragic bang: a murder-suicide.

Of course, listing every movie with a SoCal pool scene might be an endless winding task, full of contradictory meanings and interpretations. Instead, one might argue that pools operate as reflective surfaces: filmmakers and audiences project onto them our anxieties and joys, but the reflection appears like a distortion, a through-the-looking-glass-like affect that further disrupts perceptions.
Making Community from Alienation

“The symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and a kind of hedonistic attention to the body,” suggested Didion in the late 1970s. “Actually, a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the eye.”4 If one accepts Didion’s premise, pools themselves are sources of alienation. Taming water to serve human purposes and removing it from its natural use produces alienation or estrangement. Humanity conquers water not only to meet basic survival needs but, despite its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the dearth of water in the American West, for luxuries like privatized leisure.

Whatever the symbolism, pools continued to enjoy an upward rise in popularity. From 1975 to 1979, pool sales consistently increased until financing and maintenance costs led to a decline in the early 1980s. Seen as a drag on home values by many real estate figures, the only reduction in pool costs came as result of Prop 13, which lowered property taxes and those related to pool valuations. Hot tubs, cheaper and more compact, emerged as a new competitor.

Yet in the 1970s, home swimming pools served as “the midwife” to a new burgeoning culture: skateboarding. Depicted in the documentary “Dogtown and Z Boys” and the film “The Lords of Dogtown,” skaters from Dogtown, an area more or less between Venice and Santa Monica, discovered the thrill and striking visuals that came with skating empty pools. As legend attests, the drought that afflicted the region caused many homeowners to leave their pools empty. The Dogtown skaters, a multiethnic collection of working class kids, often through guerilla tactics, appropriated countless Los Angeles area pools on their way to defining skateboarding for a generation. Photographers like Glen E. Friedman and Craig Stecyk captured Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, and Jay Adams suspended in air over lips and carving out ellipses on empty pool walls. These images and the Dogtown aesthetic, a mix of Latino car culture, graffiti, and aggressive punk antics popularized by emerging skate magazines, spread nationally, reaching iconic figures like Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye in Washington D.C.

Out of the privatized controlled space of the swimming pool, Dogtown skaters created a new, rapidly pervasive subculture. “Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas,” reflected Stecyk at the time. “They make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”

Dogtown and Z-boys
Dogtown and Z-boys

Swimming in Watts at 109th Street

For all the alienation suggested by “The Graduate,” Los Angeles’s public pools have long served as a space for community. For Watts, the Will Rogers Park pool, more frequently mentioned as the 109th Street pool, has long been a valuable, if occasionally controversial, resource for the community. Located between public housing projects Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs, the 109th street pool offers working class Los Angeles kids a place to frolic when summertime heat becomes overwhelming.

Sitting only a few blocks from the “flashpoint” of the 1966 Watts riots known as “Charcoal Alley,” the 109th street institution not only provided tension-reducing leisure, but also employment and a sense of belonging. When threatened with closure due to budget cuts in 1997, locals expressed concern. “If the pool closes, these kids are going to end up on the street,” cautioned pool manager Robert Louis. “There’s going to be a lot of havoc in the community.” Watts’ lifeguards, Times journalist Hector Tobar noted, specialized in “saving kids — in more ways than you think.”

Predictably, rumors about its closures caused concern for local teens. When asked what he would do if the pool closed, fifteen year old Dawone Thomas replied, “I’d be at home … sitting around my living room wishing the pool was opened.” Finally, considering financial and spatial challenges, the pool provided a space for lower income kids to develop swimming skills; without these opportunities Thompson suggested, kids would be at greater risk around or in water, a point underscored by a near drowning that occurred only hours before Tobar arrived.

In moments, the 109th street pool struggled. In 2008, Park officials closed the pool temporarily after a group of belligerent patrons, possibly gang related, “took over the pool deck, attacked the manager and threw him, a lifeguard, and a locker room attendant in the water,” noted the Times. A year earlier the pool had installed a video surveillance system and stationed armed guards to protect against “unruly crowds” that sometimes threatened staff. Eventually, a task force was assigned to the problem and reopened the pool with additional police stationed on site. Today, despite these hiccups, the 109th street pool continues to provide a leisure and communal space for Watts’ families.

In the 21st century, pools remain a critical site for leisure and community, but they also carry risk. With new environmental dangers some of these concerns involve pollution and waste. Natural swimming pools, designed sometimes to mimic nature, sought chlorine-free systems of filtration, an industry populated by California business in places like Vista and Thousand Oaks. In a region sometimes afflicted by drought, others have worried about the vast amount of evaporation that occurs: 19,569 gallons of water evaporate from an uncovered pool annually. Still, even with these newer concerns, pools remain dangerous for the most obvious risk: drowning. The aforementioned 109th pool has experienced several near deaths, each drowning luckily prevented by the abilities of then current and sometimes former lifeguards. The death of Rodney King, a tragic Greek figure if ever there was one, at the bottom of his home swimming pool signifies the reality of this most common danger.

From the grandeur and opulence of the 1920s, to the disaffection of the 1960s, to the skate revolution of the late 1970s, and community building of the 1990s, pools serve as conduits for the many faces of Southern California. Exclusive, inclusive, alienated, celebratory, upper class, middle class, working class, black, white, Latino, Asian — few symbols serve so many communities and mean so many things. Southern California pioneered the swimming pool and the nation followed. Recently, Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar utilized the image of “a pool full of liquor” in the cautionary song “Swimming Pools (Drank)” to describe damaging cycles of dependency. While fraternities across the nation probably misinterpreted Lamar, the pool as a reservoir of the American subconscious persists and Southern California continues to lead the way.

Sunset Boulevard: ''Poor dope, he always wanted a pool''
Sunset Boulevard: ”Poor dope, he always wanted a pool”

1 Joan Didion, The White Album, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979, pg. 63.
2 Frank Mulcahy, “Pools Southland Symbol”, Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1961, P1.
3 “Real Estate – Under Water”, Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1966, I1
4 Joan Didion, The White Album, pgs. 63-64.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections column May 2013.