Fleishhacker Pool slated for demolition after fire at SF Zoo site

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Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
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Fleishhacker Pool opened with a splash in April 1925, when most of the Sunset district was still wind-swept dunes and the future site of the San Francisco Zoo was owned by the Spring Valley Water Co.

The San Francisco Examiner described the opening event at the outdoor pool — the world’s largest at 1,000 feet long and up to 150 feet wide — as “America’s greatest swim meet … in the world’s largest tank.” And indeed, with a capacity of 6 million gallons, Fleishhacker Pool was so large that the 12 to 25 lifeguards on duty at any one time needed rowboats to keep watch over all the swimmers.

Click on the photo at right to see slideshow of the building, including from inside after the fire.

The pool’s history began in 1921, when Board of the Park Commission President Herbert Fleishhacker, a wealthy businessman and banker, spearheaded the purchase of the land and the creation of the pool, zoo and a nearby playing field.

More than 8 million people would eventually visit the Outer Sunset to take a dip in its ocean water, which was piped in from the nearby Pacific Ocean and then heated. But over the decades, attendance gradually waned, due in part to the opening of indoor pools that protected swimmers from the elements better than the pool, whose oceanfront site was prone to wind and fog.

Fleishhacker Pool eventually closed in 1971 after its water pipe failed. Today, the adjacent pool house building, which sits in the parking lot of the zoo, is the last remnant of the facility. But the future of that structure is now doubtful after a suspicious Dec. 1 blaze caused significant damage.

“Structurally, the building is a total loss, and it is a safety hazard,” Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge said.

Now the vast pool house sits vacant, with extensive damage to its interior and a collapsed green-tiled roof. The once-grand exterior features boarded-up windows, peeling paint and black scorch marks from the fire.

“It’s the last physical remnant of a great recreation site in San Francisco,” said Woody LaBounty, director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit history center.

The bath house was an opulent Mediterranean-style building designed by Clarence R. Ward, a leading San Francisco architect known for helping to rebuild large portions of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Ward and his partner, Harry Blohme, built a Mediterranean-style building with a floor plan that matched the pool’s design, with a wide center building and long, narrow wings. Patrons checked their valuables and received towels and swimsuits in the main building, while the wings contained locker rooms and showers that could accommodate hundreds of adults at a time. Upstairs, a cafeteria-style restaurant overlooked the pool and the nearby beach.

Even after the pool’s 1971 closure, the pool house building was used as Janet Pomeroy’s Center for the Handicapped, and then a pottery studio and children’s craft camp. But the inside of the building fell into disrepair. After The City filled in the old pool in 1981, and then paved the parking lot in 2002 as part of a $48 million zoo expansion, the boarded-up pool house became a magnet for graffiti artists and homeless people.

Efforts to lease the facility in recent years were unsuccessful, Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Sarah Ballard said.

“Both the department and the zoo made efforts to garner lease interest and to raise funds for the restoration of the building,” Ballard said. Although some parties expressed initial interest in the building, no real commitments ever emerged, she said.

The Fire Department is investigating the cause of the blaze, which inspectors have called suspicious. But Talmadge said the extensive damage has thus far prevented investigators from determining the fire’s source.

Nonetheless, the Fire Department and the Department of Public Works each recommended demolition last week. And on Friday, the Department of Building Inspection issued a demolition order.

“We will move to get a contract out to demolish the building,” Ballard said. “The goal is to move relatively quickly because of the health and safety concerns.”

The building’s fate saddens LaBounty.

“I think we lost the Fleishhacker Pool building years ago through years of neglect,” he said. “And the fire was the last straw.”

mbillings@sfexaminer.com

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