Refreshing Balboa Pool for the 21st Century

Byron Kuth and Eliza Koshland

Designed by architect Frederick H. Reimers and opened in San Francisco’s Balboa Park in 1956, Balboa Pool is a classic example of the International Style, with its flat roof, scored concrete-clad exterior walls, bands of metal-framed windows, minimal ornamentation, and semicircular ramp leading to the entryway. After more than a half-century, however, normal wear and tear had taken its toll, chlorine had eaten away at the steel windows, and the structure needed a seismic upgrade. When we teamed up with ELS Architecture and Urban Design to renovate the facility a few years ago, we all recognized that in addition to repairing this historic treasure, we would need to refashion it for the very different ways people use community pools in the 21st century.

Balboa Park was one of many recreational facilities built during San Francisco’s post–World War II construction boom. Funded by bonds, these facilities prioritized efficiency, expediency, and economy, forgoing the grand public spaces of municipal buildings of yore.

Balboa Pool reflected this philosophy, comprising two rectangular concrete volumes set perpendicular to each other. It’s an impressive work of architecture, and the swooping ramp at the front and the concrete fins on the east and west elevations add flair, but at the same time, the emphasis was on the functional. The entrance was small and plain—it was all about getting people checked in to go to the locker room, swim, then head home. It suggested that exercise was all about improving hygiene. Today, although health is certainly one of the great motivators for people to swim, we recognize that the social aspect of recreation is vitally important as well. We spend so much of our lives in virtual environments that real-world gathering places are essential sites for interaction.

So we worked not only to preserve the historic character of the building and upgrade the structural and environmental systems, but also to enhance the experience for today’s users. For one thing, many community swim facilities now offer a community room that the public can rent for meetings, receptions, birthday parties, and other events. This brings in much-needed revenue while serving as an important gathering place in the life of the community. Balboa Pool lacked such a space. The Park & Recreation Department was hoping that the renovation project could include an addition to house a community room. We thought this was a great idea, but we know from experience that an addition is expensive, easy to get value-engineered out as a project progresses.

Balboa Pool before

To ward this possibility off, we figured out how to reconfigure the plan of the existing building to fit the community room within the original building envelope. The original changing rooms, for example, were much larger than necessary, so we shrank them, removing the dropped ceiling and adding skylights to maintain a sense of spaciousness. Along with some tinkering with the administrative spaces, that move freed up space for an 800-square-foot community room just off the lobby.

The length of the pool posed another challenge. Built in the 1950s, it was longer than the regulation length for competitions. The lane swimmers loved the long lanes and didn’t want this to change. But the length made it hard for lane swimmers and children and seniors to swim comfortably together at the same time. We negotiated with the city to put a bulkhead in, which divides the pool into a competitive length. Initially, some lane swimmers balked at this idea during public meetings. But we convinced them that putting in the bulkhead was to their advantage, because now they could lane swim all day long without having to work around a swimming class or restrict their time or lanes. The bulkhead also allowed us to install stairs descending into the pool, making it safer for children to get into the water.

Local schools, both public and independent, relied heavily on Balboa Pool for their swimming meets. That made us think about the logistical challenges of 40 kids waiting outside the facility for their parents to pick them up. We redesigned the parking area to enhance traffic flow with a new roundabout and created a new drop-off area. Right in front of the building’s entrance, we set aside an area with a row of bollards to protect waiting children from passing vehicles. Curving concentric white stripes, inspired by the striping in the parking lot, help demarcate the area.

The existing semicircular ramp was a distinctive part of the historic building, but it was not compliant with modern-day accessibility standards. The planning department’s historic preservation commission asked us to keep a portion of the ramp and maintain the overall gesture. So we replicated the old ramp, even down to the railings, which we updated slightly to meet the building code, while keeping the angle, the size, the spacing, and all of the steel. We replaced the eastern arc of the ramp with a staircase for quick access; for the western arc, we created a new ramp that met ADA standards.

The building’s main entrance used to be in the center, where the two ramps met. We moved the entrance closer to the eastern corner of the building in order to make the ramp long enough that it could slope gently and meet ADA requirements. It was a pragmatic solution that also made accessibility a celebrated gesture. Because the staircase was shorter than the ramp it replaced, we painted a curving white stripe on the pavement to visually extend the eastern half of the arc so the two arcs would “match.”

The original pool had obscure glazing systems, so you couldn’t see into or out of the building. At the lower level, metal grills behind the glass shielded the changing rooms from view. As a result, the building read as an opaque, massive concrete block. In our renovation, we replaced the opaque glass with clear glass and removed the grills, granting the building a transparency it had always lacked.

To define a clear point of entry, we created a canopy over the entrance, contemporary in design to read as separate from the historic structure. To harmonize with the original building’s industrial vocabulary, we fashioned the canopy out of corrugated perforated metal and exposed structural steel. The geometry is meant to reference the fluid motion of water. We wanted it to have a gesture that celebrated the program of the building and brought delight. It’s a happy building, after all, even if it is made of raw concrete and steel. Also new are the large-scale italic letters spelling out BALBOA POOL at the front of the building, a dynamic way of marking the building and its role in the neighborhood.

The result, we hope, adds more fun to the functional.

Photos by Bruce Damonte

Thumbnail Photo by Lawrence Anderson


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