The Gingrich Memorial Pool, located in Coleman Memorial Park in northeast Lebanon, has been one of the city’s best-known recreational features for generations of local residents. In December, Lebanon City Council reluctantly voted to demolish the structure, citing steep repair costs and declining attendance. In this two-part feature, LebTown explores the history of the pool and the people who designed it, managed it, and visited it.
On the morning of October 6, 1924, Dr. Edward H. Gingrich passed away in his sleep. Heart trouble had finally taken the doctor, who had served for 25 years as Lebanon’s city health officer. Before death, Gingrich had set up a trust fund that was to be used to erect and maintain a municipal swimming pool for the community.
The fund sat for almost 15 years until March of 1939, when the Gingrich estate’s attorney, Harry Honker, attempted to turn the fund over to the city. In the last months of the previous year, the city had submitted an application to receive a $60,000 grant from the Public Works Administration, which was denied on the grounds that the Gingrich fund constituted a “private institution” and thus could not receive government aid.
The fund itself, however, had grown to be worth $60,000, and in the ensuing months the money would eventually be turned over to the city, finally appearing as a $59,413 check in September. A later addition of nearly $15,000 from the estate of Dr. Gingrich’s widow, Anna Elizabeth, bumped the total construction funds for the pool up to $71,288, over $68,000 of which was used.
In November of 1939, city officials approved the design specifications for the pool, which had been drawn up seven months earlier by a Michigan engineer. The engineer’s name was Wesley Bintz, and the Gingrich Memorial Pool is one of the few remaining monuments to a nationwide legacy that has only recently begun to be properly remembered and recognized.
The story of Wesley Bintz and his pools
Nearly the entire history of above-ground community pools in the United States begins and ends with Bintz. Born in 1891 in Missouri, Bintz grew up in the city of Lansing, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and subsequently worked in Flint, designing his first two pools there before returning to Lansing as a city engineer. The Moore’s Park Pool of Lansing is the oldest existing (and functioning) Bintz pool in the country, having been built in 1923. Bintz applied for a patent on his above-ground pool design in the same year, which was granted three years later, and set off for the rest of the country.
Tegan Baiocchi is an architectural historian who has become the unofficial expert on Bintz and his signature pools after researching them in graduate school. Baiocchi has compiled resources and information on pools across the country. In an email exchange with LebTown, she explained the various facets of a Bintz pool design and the impact they have had in their communities.
By the time Bintz was tapped to design what would become the Gingrich Memorial Pool, he had already established around 90 pools around the country, according to a Daily News article on March 31, 1939. His style was by now fairly concrete, and the Gingrich Memorial Pool bears all the hallmarks of a standard Bintz design.
Perhaps the most obvious is its ovoid shape, which Bintz found to be the most efficient shape for swimming. A rectangular pool, according to Bintz, wasted valuable surface area in its corners, and a symmetric oval design gave equal area to the high-traffic shallow end and the less-frequented deep end. Therefore, an ovoid shape with a large shallow end was optimal for swimmers. Despite Bintz’s aversion to corners, he did design rectangular pools, which were often built to stay within the confines of urban properties.
Bintz’s style developed in the early years before he settled on a particular template. Some of the earliest pools, like Moore’s Park’s, are of a slightly different shape and include Art Noveau and Craftsman elements, as Baiocchi puts it. “He used what was seen as an attractive, generally pleasing style of the time,” she wrote.
“They sort of evolve until you end up with something very Modern, almost Googie styled. Because that’s what was cool in the 1940s and 1950s.”
“A Bintz swimming pool is just like an inverted straw hat lying on the table. The table represents the ground. The pool proper is the crown of the hat and the bathroom is under the rim of the hat. Fill up the crown with a filler until you get the right and proper depth of water and you have the pool.”Wesley Bintz, Press and Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, NY
3 Jul 1977 (Note: this is an earlier quotation of Bintz, who passed away in 1967.)
Other elements of the Bintz design include the hollow lower “brim” of the pool, which often served as convenient locker or bathroom space. Even small details, like a distinct Art Deco-inspired entryway, are recognizably Bintz.
Bintz pools varied significantly in size, as well. Baiocchi’s WordPress site notes that the smallest pool, at Maine’s Batchelder Hotel, measured just 25 by 40 feet, while the largest, in Cleveland, spanned 130 by 240 feet. The Gingrich Memorial Pool, at 100 by 160 feet, sits comfortably between the two extremes. Gingrich Memorial Pool, before changes made in 2004 and 2005, held 400,000 gallons of water.
Bintz’s control of the market for above-ground community swimming pools was tight, partially because he was “fairly protective of his patent,” Baiocchi explained. There are a few non-Bintz pools — Baiocchi names the Liberty Heights pool of Martinsville, Virginia, and the Roy Jenkins pool of Tampa, Florida, as exceptions to Bintz’s market domination (the former was originally a lumber company’s reservoir and the latter was designed by architect Franklin O. Adams). Incidentally, Tampa would go on to construct a second, Bintz-designed pool in 1937, just eight years after the Adams one.
The draw of an above-ground pool for cities included reduced need for fencing, shallower sewer systems, and minimal excavation costs. Bintz’s promotional materials advertise his pools as lasting around 50 years with regular maintenance and assuming no major renovations, and further claim that they are “25% to 40% cheaper to build than a sunken pool and bath house of equal size, performance, and details.” According to Baiocchi, the lifespan is “fairly comparable” with traditional in-ground pools.
This lifespan has held fairly consistently through the years. In the past several decades, many aging Bintz pools have struggled to secure their future. A number were torn down in the late decades of the 20th century, and the ones that stuck around have met with debates over demolition. The oldest surviving Bintz pool, Lansing’s Moore’s Park Pool, is in need of $1.2 million repairs as it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2023. For reference, the Gingrich Memorial Pool received major renovations in 1986, just a few years short of its 50th anniversary.
The age of Bintz nostalgia
Though the Bintz design is undoubtedly endangered, there’s never been a better time for fans of the pools to find information and make their case for keeping them, thanks to the research of local residents and the online pooling of information.
In addition to her research, Baiocchi has also created a Facebook group, The Wesley Bintz Swimming Pool Network. Posts from residents of communities whose pools are on the verge of destruction routinely appear on the wall, but there are also many posts that simply exist to share information and photos. After several decades of relatively little public knowledge of the pools, why has interest in them surged in recent years?
Baiocchi thinks it’s a combination of a few factors: the internet, their increasing scarcity, and nostalgia.
“In most of the communities that Bintz built pools in (except maybe the really big cities), his pool was the very first public pool that they had ever had,” she explained.
Though Lebanon had seen sizable swimming pools in establishments like the YMCA building at 9th and Willow Streets, the Gingrich Pool was built for the whole community. Many smaller communities like Lebanon held onto their Bintz pools while bigger cities like New York City and Indianapolis replaced theirs with newer designs as the years passed.
It’s not clear exactly how many Bintz pools were constructed. Some sources put the number at 128, while others tack it at 135. Either way, the number of pools still remaining is dwindling at around 17. Only about nine are in an operable state, according to Baiocchi.
Many have been torn down completely, like Bangor’s community pool, nearly identical to Lebanon’s. Others have escaped demolition only to slowly deteriorate over time, like the Prospect Park pool of Troy, New York, which was closed in the 1990s and is today filled with weeds and graffiti.
There are a handful of success stories, like Tampa’s Cuscaden Pool, which reopened in 2016 following a $3.2 million dollar renovation process, or the World War II Memorial Pool in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, which underwent renovations in 2008. But steep maintenance costs continue to put pressure on communities with active pools.
Instead of trying to keep the pool as a pool, some have wondered if it’s possible to turn a Bintz pool into a different kind of recreational area. The ideas that come up frequently include skate parks and community gardens, but it appears that no community has yet been successful in carrying out such a transformation.
“I feel like, for people in communities that lost their pool, it’s like some feel like they might have a second chance to help save another pool, since they couldn’t save theirs,” Baiocchi speculated. “My goal now is to maybe educate people on practical adaptive reuse possibilities and outreach […], there hasn’t been a viable adaptive reuse proposed and implemented for any of these pools. Gingrich would have been a great one to try something new with. Prospect Park in Troy would be too. Because once a community takes the plunge and puts something viable together, it’s going to be a template for other abandoned Bintz pools.”
The Gingrich Memorial Pool is one well-loved by the community as a recognizable, impressively distinct Lebanon landmark, yet it also exists as part of a broader conversation about the value and historic significance of these pools.
“I think as the older generation started going on the internet more, and things like Google and Facebook opened up the possibility of sharing information, people who remembered swimming in the pools, or had to look at them sitting there everyday, did a little searching and realized just what they had — not that it was a one of a kind, unique thing, but that they were members of a fairly exclusive group of communities that had something that most others didn’t have,” concludes Baiocchi.
Lebanon’s history and debate over demolition is one that has been taken place in communities around the country; some have drawn up the massive sums of money necessary for rehabilitation while others have had to say a difficult goodbye.
As one of Bintz’s early brochures put it, the pools of Lebanon and elsewhere are “All Different, Yet All Alike.”
Stay tuned for next week’s feature, which will cover specific developments for the Gingrich Pool and how generations of kids have spent their summers in the waters. Visit The Wesley Bintz Swimming Pool Network on Facebook for pictures, information, and a community of Bintz fans, and take a look at Bintz pools around the country in this Flickr gallery.
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