Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2016 (726 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On January 9, the much-delayed reopening of the Sherbrook Pool will take place after a multimillion-dollar renovation that will extend its life for another 25 years. It was a much-needed and much-deserved investment in a facility that has been a workhorse for the city’s recreation department for the past 85 years.
In the late 1920s, the city had two indoor pools (or public baths, as they were known). One was on Pritchard Avenue and the other, the Cornish Baths, was located on West Gate next to the Cornish Library.
The circa-1915 Cornish Baths were closed suddenly in October 1929 when a building inspector found the foundation was failing — one of its walls was creeping down the bank of the Assiniboine River. It was determined the cost of shoring up the facility, even enough to get one more summer of use out of it, was prohibitive.
There was great pressure on the city to get a new pool built, even after the economic uncertainty brought about by the stock-market crash just days after the building was closed.
At the time, swimming pools were more than a recreational amenity. The fact they fell under the jurisdiction of the public health department rather than the parks board was a sign of their importance.
They were, as their name suggested, a place to bathe. In the late 1920s, it was estimated about a quarter of the city’s population did not have access to proper bathing facilities, and there was no bylaw requiring them to be included in new builds or renovated residences.
Many of the tenement houses and apartment blocks that housed the poorer classes or new immigrants either had no baths or just one tub for many units. Former middle-class homes built before running water was provided by the city were now aging. As the middle class moved into the suburbs and their former homes were being converted into multi-family dwellings or rooming houses, the inclusion of additional baths was at the discretion of the building owner.
The Winnipeg Tribune, which openly campaigned in favour of a new pool, noted in a November 1929 editorial the loss of the Cornish Baths "means that hundreds and thousands of children now being familiarized with the idea of bathing, washing and public cleanliness, will have this stimulus and suggestion removed from their young lives."
There was also a strong public-safety case made for replacing the pool.
At the time, Winnipeg’s rivers were still a focal point of city life. They were used regularly for recreational swimming, transportation and commerce. During the summer months through the 1920s and ’30s, it was not uncommon for there to be one or more drownings or near-drownings a week, usually children swept away in the current.
Groups such as the YMCA and the Royal Life Saving Society weighed in, noting having children swim in a supervised, indoor setting was not only providing them with a valuable life skill but, thanks to formal swimming lessons and CPR classes that were offered, these children could go into the community and be able to save others.
The city had barely enough time to rush a money bylaw onto the ballot of the November 1929 civic election. The public supported the $150,000 ask.
Architectural firm Pratt and Ross was hired to design the new facility while the city went on the hunt for a site. After months of researching a number of sites in the West End, the Sherbrook Street location was chosen because it was the closest to the former Cornish Baths. By the time the construction contract was let to Hazelton and Walin in August 1930, the city was under additional pressure to get the project completed as soon as possible.
The Great Depression was deepening, and the federal government was desperate to find "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, in which they would pay to 75 per cent of the costs, as a way of getting some people back to work.
"Public Baths No. 2" was chosen as a relief project, and construction got underway in the last week of September 1930. By Jan. 31, 1931, all but the finishing touches on the interior were complete.
On Saturday, Feb. 28, 1931, an opening ceremony was held. Mayor Ralph Webb unlocked the doors, and the public was invited in for an opening-day program that featured demonstrations of swimming, diving and life-saving skills by "Mrs. Harrison’s Waterbabies." (Harrison was the wife of the superintendent of public baths, and the "babies" were actually teenage girls.)
The following Monday, the pool opened to the general public, with an admission price of 15 cents for adults and five cents for children. It was an immediate hit during one of the hottest summers on record. While the Cornish Baths had 65,000 visits in its last year of operation, the Sherbrook Pool had 134,000 visits in its first year.
It was not only recreational swimmers who enjoyed the facility. For the city’s competitive swim clubs, having an indoor, Olympic-standard pool meant they had an opportunity to compete against some of the best national and international swimmers in their own backyard.
The first international swim meet took place just weeks after the pool opened and featured multiple world record holder Helene Madison of Seattle and an all-star lineup of American champions. The Canadian national swimming championships were held at the pool in 1935 and 1939.
This level of competition brought Manitoba swimmers onto the national scene. Through the 1930s and 1940s, women such as Catherine (Gordon) Kerr, Ethel (Gilbert) Bieber, Vivian (King) Thompson and Vera (Tustin) Gilbert each held numerous provincial and national swimming records.
In 1947, the aging Pritchard Baths were closed. From then until the opening of the Pan Am Pool in 1967, the Sherbrook Pool was the city’s only indoor swimming pool. It was pressed into service 12 hours a day to accommodate the general public and the dozens of swim clubs, school teams and other organizations that now called it home.
A reprieve finally came in 1969 with the opening of the Centennial Pool. The Sherbrook was allowed to close for a much-needed, multimillion-dollar refurbishment. When it reopened in September 1970, it found itself in a new era.
Most of the swim clubs and leagues that had relocated to the Pan Am Pool during the closure never returned. Starting in the mid-1970s, the city went on a building spree of new, suburban pools. These facilities, such as the Adsum Pool and Elmwood Kildonans Pool, offered amenities the Sherbrook simply could not: divided tanks, saunas, weight rooms and diving towers.
In less than a decade, the Sherbrook Pool went from being the jewel in the city’s recreation services crown to a somewhat antiquated, single-use, single tank, inner-city community pool.
Its age and location meant the pool found itself on the chopping block a number of times during budget debates in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004, the city’s Public Use Facilities Study declared the building surplus because of its condition and the high cost-per-swim ratio.
The pool managed to dodge these bullets thanks to local politicians and community organizations such as Friends of Sherbrook Pool.
One of the pool’s darkest days came Thursday, Nov. 12, 2012. Swimmers were ordered out of the tank, and the building was closed indefinitely because of extensive corrosion that was found at the base of most of the roof’s support beams.
A protracted debate about the future of the pool took place. In the end, the city set aside $1.7 million for renovations, and the Kinsmen Club of Winnipeg donated an additional $1 million. Over time, additional funds were added to the project, bringing the total to more than $3 million. This allowed for additional work to be carried out but delayed the city’s promise of a late 2015 or early 2016 reopening.
The renamed Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool open Jan. 9, 2017, ready to face its second century of service.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or ten - to tell.
Updated on Monday, January 9, 2017 at 10:39 AM CST: Updated dates as per actual opening.