Socialists and Swimming Pools

Most people find the building of a swimming pool to be an exciting time; waiting for the project to be completed and the weather warm enough to swim in the clear water.

Today, Davenport has many city and private pools for residents to swim in. That was not the case when the city decided to build its first public swimming pool in 1921 – 1922. Who knew the event would become part of a unique time in Davenport’s history?
In 1920, citizens of Davenport elected their first, and last, Socialist majority city council. Not only was the mayor, C. L. Barewald, part of the Socialist Party, but so were five of the eight alderman ; the other three aldermen belonged to the Republican Party. The Mayor Barewald and the aldermen on his ticket wanted to promote the interests of the average citizen and the creation of a public swimming pool in the downtown area would fit that idea.

In 1921, the council picked a spot for a new Municipal Natatorium (a large swimming pool with showers and dressing areas), right along the Mississippi River at the foot of Harrison and Main Streets, and budgeted $50,000 to its creation.

From the beginning the Socialist council members faced great opposition. Many citizens were outraged that the council had picked a prime piece of real estate for a public pool that they felt could be placed elsewhere. Not only were these groups worried about undesirable people being attracted to the pool, but also of men, women and children walking the streets in bathing attire.* Those in favor of the pool felt it should be built in the downtown near the “working man’s” district to provide a solution to hygiene problems that faced groups of people living in crowded conditions without adequate bathing facilities in their residents.

On November 16, 1921 the issues came to a head when 18 civic and social organizations presented petitions with 16,000 signatures to the majority Socialist council at the city council meeting. The Socialist members argued the only reason people didn’t want the pool built on that location was because certain citizens wanted to use it for capitalist gain. After a lengthy argument, the five Socialist aldermen outvoted their three Republican counterparts to approve the deal.

To make sure nothing could interrupt their decision, the council ordered worker’s to begin digging the foundation very next day. Injunction proceedings were promised by those that opposed the building location, but in the end “The Working Man’s Bathtub,” as it was sometimes called in the newspapers, was built for $106,000, not the $50,000 estimated.

The Municipal Natatorium was opened on July 20, 1922 with a preview on the evening of July 19, 1922 that drew a crowd of thousands to view the facility. The ladies’ changing room contained rocking chairs and mirrors for patrons to use, the building had a first aid station, laundry for washing the swim suits, and showers for men and women. Heated water and soap were provided for the patrons and everyone was expected to shower before going into the pool. People with open sores or colds were not allowed to swim.

Not even the grand opening could escape controversy. The opening coincided with the regular city council meeting on the night of July 19, 1922. The new mayor, Republican Alfred Mueller, and aldermen were promised the diving exhibition held that night would not take place until they arrived. Unfortunately that did not happen and they missed the show. Their outrage was expressed in the newspaper the next day.** However, most parties apparently did overcome their opposition or disappointment and the facility was enjoyed by thousands of citizens for many years.

The Natatorium closed in 1977 due to safety concerns and a declining attendance. It was decided that, as residential homes sprawled outwards away from the downtown area, improvements were too costly for a facility that no longer was part of a population center. The city decided to invest in smaller pools located in various locations throughout Davenport.

In 1980 the Municipal Natatorium, which had been renamed several years before as LeClaire Pool, was demolished and replaced by green space. This green space was later converted to a parking lot which still covers the site today.

For all its original controversy, the Natatorium played a positive role in the lives of thousands of Davenporters who today can think back at the happy memories that were made over the course of long, hot summers.

(posted by Amy D.)

*The Davenport Democrat and Leader, November 10, 1921. Page 13.
**The Davenport Daily Times, July 20, 1922.

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3 Responses to Socialists and Swimming Pools

  1. Adrian says:

    What a great story!

  2. Amy D. says:

    Thanks Adrian! Wouldn’t it be fun to have a pool overlooking the Mississippi River? We will have to write more about Davenport’s Socialist city council. There might be more hidden gems for us to explore!

  3. Pat G. says:

    I grew up in small-town Iowa. My cousins lived in the big city, Davenport, where we’d visit. One of my first “swimming” experiences was at the “Nat”. I must have been about 4. They had signs requiring “Shower in the Nude”. I had never seen the word “nude” before and had no idea what it meant. I jumped into the deep end, eyes open and d@&#-near drowned! The first of many unforgettable experiences in Dam-port!

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