A Brief History of the Swimming Pool

A Brief History of the Swimming Pool

Nancy Mitchell
Aug 3, 2015
(Image credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The swimming pool is one of those quintessentially American things: it conjures up images of Southern California, of suburban backyards, of lazy days spent by the pool drinking a cold beer. But how did the swimming pool come to be? Public pools can trace their origins to Roman baths of old, but private ones are a relatively recent invention. Let's take a deep dive (pun intended) into the rich history of the backyard swimming pool.

The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle
(Image credit: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

One of the earliest private residential swimming pools was the Neptune Pool, built at William Randolph Hearst's California mansion in the 1920s. Based on Greek and Roman designs, it established the home swimming pool as a status symbol and captured the imagination of the American public.

It also captured the imagination of Hollywood directors, who began featuring pools in their movies, further enhancing their fascination for the American public. A great example is Busby Berkeley's By a Waterfall, which includes some pretty trippy synchronized swimming.

But it was post-WWII prosperity (and a serendipitous technological development) that really led to the ubiquity of the backyard swimming pool. They had already been established in the American consciousness as a desirable residential accoutrement, and the invention of Gunite, or pneumatically placed concrete, made building pools considerably more efficient and brought them within the reach of the middle class.

The Donnell pool, seen in an image from About Home
(Image credit: About Home)

Gunite also made possible more innovative shapes. One famous example is the Donnell Pool, located in Sonoma, California and designed by architect Thomas Church, which gave rise to a whole generation of kidney-shaped pools. The free-form pools were intended to merge with nature and more closely resemble natural ponds.

The Raymond Lowey house, as seen on the Modernica Blog
(Image credit: Modernica Blog)

The pool also captured the imagination of several well-known midcentury architects, who incorporated them into some of their most famous designs. (Try to imagine, if you will, a Palm Springs modern house without the pool.) Pictured above is Raymond Lowey house in Palm Springs, which featured a freeform pool that extended into the interior of the house.

A Slim Aarons image available from Photographers Gallery
(Image credit: Photographers Gallery)

Richard Neutra's Kaufman house, also in Palm Springs, also prominently featured a pool, as photographed by Slim Aarons, for whom swimming pools were a favorite subject.

Lately we're starting to see smaller lap pools and plunge pools as people move to denser, more urban spaces and become more aware of their pools' environmental impacts. But the popularity of pools shows no signs of flagging — with summer temperatures on the rise, soaking in a cold, refreshing pool on a hot day remains as appealing as ever.

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