Historic Restorations

Eric Herman Headshot

Recently, I had the pleasure of joining Bill Rowley on site visits to four historic aquatic installations where his prowess as an engineer is being used to breathe new life into bodies of water badly in need of renovation work. It was an honor to watch one of the most revered and influential figures in the industry. Here is a brief report on the commencement of the work.

The Neptune Pool

Perched on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the beautiful Central Coast of California, Hearst Castle remains one of the world's most spectacular sites. Among its many magnificent appointments, the Neptune Pool is arguably the most photographed and famous swimming pools in modern history.

I joined Dr. William N. Rowley in mid-December on a sunny day with his colleague and longtime collaborator, Patricia Soto, for a behind-the-scenes tour of the pool and the catacombs beneath it, something the public never sees. Bill and Patricia were there as part of an ongoing effort to renovate portions of the massive pool, which is currently empty.

Bill is uniquely qualified for the work due in part to a prior project he engineered several years ago in Santa Monica, Calif. The project was known as the Marion Davies pool, which was part of a private estate Hearst built for his mistress and longtime companion. The pool and out-building were all that remained of the original estate, designed by Julia Morgan, the architect responsible for Hearst Castle.

Bill took the long-abandoned pool and restored it to its original beauty. The site is now known as the Annenberg Community Beach House and serves as a public park and aquatic center.

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With that background, Bill is a natural choice to engineer and plan much of the work at the far grander and more famous Neptune Pool, which consists of updating the antiquated plumbing system and shoring up some structural leaks.

There we accessed a system of tunnels beneath the pool where a new plumbing loop will be painstakingly installed. Accessed through a planted slope via a hidden path, visiting the underbelly of the pool is like stepping back in time. From the open-air gravity sand filters to the wood grain still visible from the forms used in its poured-in-place concrete construction, we were brought face to face with handiwork that is nearly a century old.

The dark tunnels are almost spooky, a stark contrast to the soaring opulence of the castle that rises above. Fluid, slowly leaking through some of the cold joints, has created stalactites that now hang from the tunnel's ceiling.

The work remains in the planning stages as the project team tackles the challenge of updating the pool's circulation system without disrupting its classically inspired aesthetic design.

During the visit we were also treated to an impromptu tour of some of the castle's interiors and vast collection of architectural features and artwork.

The "Hey Rookie" Pool

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A month later I found myself again joining Bill for a round of visits to three historic sites in and around Los Angeles. As was the case for the Neptune Pool, all three have significant cultural value and are in need of renovation. And they are all coincidentally situated on hilltops with dazzling views of the surrounding areas.

Our first stop was in San Pedro to the site that was once Fort McArthur, a World War II U.S. Army installation whose primary purpose was the defense of the Los Angeles Harbor. There, sitting atop a hill over looking the harbor is a large, long abandoned swimming pool that was once named the "Hey Rookie Pool," which these days is known as the Gaffey Street Pool.

The pool was built through funds raised by proceeds from "Hey Rookie," a live show produced and performed by members of the Fort MacArthur Garrison. The show was developed during the early years of World War II as a way to increase morale and quickly became so popular the military took it on the road in the U.S and overseas.

The pool was built in 1943. During the war, the pool was used for both recreation and training recruits who didn't know how to swim. In the decades following the war, the pool became a popular fun spot for the citizens of San Pedro and military families who lived on the base. It also became home to a water-ballet company known as the Southern California Aquabelles.

After nearly 40 years of heavy use, time took a heavy toll on the pool, which fell into severe disrepair and was eventually drained and closed in 1990.

In the years since, the Fort McArthur Museum Association worked with local government and community associations to raise funds to refurbish the pool and surrounding deck terraces, an effort that amassed $6.9 million for the restoration, which broke ground Feb. 5, just two days before our visit to the site.

As is the case for the other projects described here, Bill is playing a key role engineering and planning the renovation work, which will involve a completely revamped circulation system along with the painstaking restoration of the pool's all-tile surface and the expansive surrounding hardscape.

Having grown up in and around Los Angeles, I've seen my fair share of graffiti, but nowhere had I seen anything close to this. Despite those artistic insults and its currently unusable condition, it's also readily apparent that the pool still has great bones with its 1930s-esque modernist design and breathtaking views of the harbor.

The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial

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After our visit to San Pedro, Bill and I headed north to downtown Los Angeles for a visit to another historic site with a military pedigree. Located adjacent to L.A.'s historic Olvera Street, the site was once an all-Mormon U.S. Marine installation that played a central role in the "Siege of Los Angeles," a standoff between the U.S. military and locals early in the Mexican-American War.

In 1957, 110 years after the American Flag was first raised over the fort, the City of Los Angeles in conjunction with Los Angeles County, the L.A. Board of Education and Department of Water and Power, paid tribute to that famous battle with the completion of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial.

Located in what is now a pocket park set atop a hill overlooking much of the downtown area, the memorial is essentially a massive retaining wall that features an 80-foot long by 45-foot high waterfall. Large sculptural panels depicting the site's history flank the waterfall, which was turned off in 1977 due to drought.

On the day of our visit, we found the site in decay and occupied by a handful of L.A.'s large homeless population. Bill is part of an effort to refurbish the memorial that will eventually result in the reactivation of the waterfall.

The Pool at Robinson Gardens

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Photos by Eric Herman - Click to enlargePhotos by Eric Herman - Click to enlarge

Our final stop on this tour led us to the exquisitely beautiful Virginia Robinson Gardens, the very first estate built in the legendarily opulent enclave of Beverly Hills. Although also perched on a hilltop and only a few miles away from downtown L.A., it felt like we were in a completely different world.

The site, which is now operated by L.A. County, was the home of Virginia Dryden Robinson and Harry Winchester Robinson, who were heirs to the Robinson Co., best known for the department stores of the same name.

Similar in some respects to Hearst Castle, the Robinsons set out to create a Shangri-La for the rich and famous of the early 20th century, a grand venue for gala parties attended by movie stars and celebrities.

Virginia's father, architect Nathaniel Dryden, designed the main home, which was completed in 1911 in the "Beaux Arts" style. The seven-acre property included expansive and varied gardens with literally thousands of plant species and more than 500 varieties of roses. The bucolic gardens cover a wide range of styles and today serves as an arboretum and living testament to the creative vision of its owners.

The Renaissance Revival Pool and Pavilion were built in 1924 and were modeled after the Villa Pisani in the Tuscan region of Italy. The space features decorative panels of tile mosaics and Roman arches at the entry to the pavilion's solarium.

Unlike the other properties described in this article, this pool is still operating and is one of the most beautiful found anywhere. Bill's role is to revamp the circulation system, but in this case, the goal is to both update the equipment and return the pool's abandoned original gutter system to full operation.

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As we left this beautiful property, my mind was spinning from the experience of taking in the sights, sounds and even aromas of these important places. From soaring beauty of Hearst Castle to the World War II history of the "Hey Rookie" Pool, to the abandoned majesty of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial and finally the lavish beauty of Virginia Robinson's gardens, I felt deeply the impact of the historic role that some swimming pools and water features play in today's often disposable properties.

Taking that tour with a man who is actively participating in the perpetuation of these facilities for future generations, I had a sense of at least lightly touching history. More a man of action than of words, Bill simply said, "It's important that we preserve these places because they each tell their own important stories."

Editor's Note: As these projects are completed, we'll revisit them in upcoming issues.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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