Reflecting on the Gingrich Memorial Pool, Pt. 2: Work & play

10 min read1,733 views and 102 shares Posted April 8, 2020

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. Read the first part here.

Just as the Gingrich Memorial Pool is recognizable as part of the unique legacy of designer Wesley Bintz, it holds a special place in the hearts of many Lebanon citizens, whether they oversaw operations or spent their summers at it.

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The pool opened for public use on Sunday, June 22, 1941. During its first summer season, which ran until August 1, the pool brought in over $2,700, according to the Lebanon Daily News (this did not include money for refreshments — an additional $324). In its first year, the pool attracted around 15,000 swimmers. Hundreds of thousands more would go on to visit the pool through the ensuing decades.

Future County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz (née Waybright) takes a dive off of one of the pool’s boards. (Jo Ellen Litz)

Meets, trips, and more

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Though Dr. Edward Gingrich’s idea to use it as a skating rink in the off-season never came to fruition, the pool boasted a variety of activities for patrons. The high and low diving boards were a popular feature even in its early years, and competitions were frequently reported in the news.

The size and accessibility of the pool made it a draw for local swim teams. One reader informed LebTown that the pool was the only county pool that was Olympic-sized in length (50 meters). Coach John Davis of Cedar Crest High School utilized this fact to his swimmers’ advantage, gaining permission to hold training at the pool on summer mornings beginning at 6am.

Jason Gamble of Lebanon recalled the training sessions with Coach Davis. “It was always freezing cold because they constantly had to refill it at that time with cold water,” he wrote in a message to LebTown.

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(Jon Beers)

LebTown also talked with Coleman Memorial Park Board of Trustees member Patrice Royer, whose experience working with the park dates back to the early 1980s. At that time, Royer was a secretary for the Lebanon Department of Parks, Public Property, and Recreation. A decade later, Royer became Director of Recreation, a position she held until 2002.

The pool would handily bring in “over 500 in a day, especially if it was warm,” according to Royer. “We sold over 100 pool passes just about every summer I was there.”

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On Tuesdays and Thursdays, city playgrounds came out to play at an admission rate of 50 cents. Some days saw boat racing contests, with the winning playground awarded a pizza party. “On Tuesday and Thursday, that place was a zoo,” Royer reminisced.

The major days of the season were often holidays, with the Fourth of July almost always being a success. In recent years, celebrations of the pool’s birthday and “Christmas in July” events were also held.

(Beers)

For Lebanon kids, the pool was only a short distance away. “We didn’t have all these outlying townships with the population they have now,” said Royer. “Kids could walk to it. There were kids there that we all knew from school. Everybody went there.”

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Financing and maintenance

Maintaining and operating the pool was demanding. Though the pool might have seen hundreds of visitors in a single day in a good season, the operating costs of the pool were perpetually outweighing the income. According to records consulted by Royer during her time with the pool, the pool was only ever profitable for a single year: 1973. The Daily News reported on September 1 that 48,438 visitors came to the pool and brought in $14,200, marking it as “one of the most successful years in the history of the pool.”

Before school schedules were altered to start in August, a typical season ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But the dog days of summer were frequently not the most profitable. “We were never ever busy in the month of August. The whole income depended on what your month of June was,” said Royer. “That was when everybody bought their pool passes. If you had a rainy or cool June, the whole summer was a flop.”

(Beers)

“I don’t remember a summer, winter, fall, or spring that we didn’t work on that pool, after closing or before opening. There was always something being done,” said Royer of the upkeep. A fresh coat of paint was applied to it every other year, and the railing that lined the stairs was in need of frequent repairs (until a bench placed by Royer dissuaded visitors from sitting on the rail). While Royer was Director, both the one and three meter diving boards were taken out due to regulations and insurance complications.

One of the pool’s major renovations came in 1986, when $775,000 went into repairing wear-and-tear damage. This included the relocation of the toddler wading pool, a resurfaced pool bottom, and newly-refurbished deck and interior. After renovations finished, Royer recalled, the pool saw another great year, which she speculated was due to its period of unavailability.

A towel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the pool. (Pat Royer)

For the pool’s 50th anniversary in 1991, the recreation department printed t-shirts and created commemorative towels, water bottles, and other trinkets.

Aside from routine upkeep and the 1986 renovations, the pool would remain essentially the same until 2004, when another series of major renovations gave the pool a new name and a new look.

Edward Lauther and the 2004-2005 restoration

A June 2004 photograph of the pool. (Jon Beers)
Before and after renovations in the winter of 2004 and 2005. (Jon Beers)

By 2004, the pool was in a decline. Attendance had been dropping for several summers and the building itself, though structurally sound, was in need of serious cosmetic and functional repairs. The basin was leaking around 6.5 million gallons of water over the course of a summer, according to then-Public Works Director Jonathan Beers.

Beers served in the position from 2001 to 2006 before being appointed to his current role as Executive Director of the Lebanon Water Authority in 2007. In an email exchange with LebTown, he discussed the state of the pool in the 2000s and shared photographs.

As early as 2002, the city and then-Mayor Robert Anspach were discussing the possibility of using funds from the will of a Lebanon High business teacher to repair the pool. Edward P. Lauther, who died in 1983, left $250,000 to the city with the order to construct a pool on the south side. In his specifications, he requested it to be a shallow lap pool with no diving area in order to provide a competitive and practical training space for young swimmers. If the money was still not used 21 years after his death, the funds were to be split between St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Lebanon YMCA.

The interior of the pool bottom. (Beers)

In 2000, there had been a briefly proposed plan to construct a pool in Optimist Park at 13th and Washington Streets. These plans fell through partially due to objections from the church. The money’s window of availability to the city was beginning to close. Anspach reached an agreement to use the money to renovate and add new features to the Gingrich Memorial Pool. Additional funds came from the PA Department of Conservation of Natural Resources and the YMCA, among others, according to the project’s budget document.

The decision garnered some controversy, especially among those who felt Lauther’s wishes were not being honored. “I had him in school, there were a lot of people I know that had him in school,” said Royer. “We all said to each other, ‘That’s not what Mr. Lauther wanted.'”

(Beers)

Among the changes and renovations:

  • A newly poured concrete bottom as well as several waterpark-style features (about $620,000)
  • A 176-foot slide
  • A new snack bar building along with bathrooms; previously, the snack bar was an “old wooden shack” (over $200,000)
  • New fencing
  • A new water filtration system with pumps, piping, and chemical treatment
  • Small renovations to the nearby picnic pavilion
  • Fixes to the “crumbling concrete” of the interior
  • Redone entrance (including a new facade with “Lauther Memorial Water Complex” molded into it)
  • Lights for use at night (Beers was unaware of any nighttime activity these would have been used for; Coleman Memorial Park closes at sunset)
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The bathroom facilities, lifeguard quarters, lockers, and windows were among the few components not replaced. Beers noted that the lockers were an eyesore, and that city and YMCA employees cleaned and painted the area every year.

The pool continued to leak, though later work reduced the volume of water draining out. Any water that was lost during the day (typically several inches, according to Beers) would have to be refilled overnight.

The new facade of the Gingrich Memorial Pool/Lauther Memorial Water Complex. (Beers)

After a year of work, the newly christened Lauther Water Complex reopened to the public on May 19, 2005, at noon. Though the name hasn’t quite stuck (many still refer to it as the Gingrich Memorial Pool or simply the Coleman pool), the money from Lauther nevertheless enabled a whole new generation of Lebanon youngsters to enjoy the space.

Working at the pool

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Dozens of Lebanon residents worked at the pool as lifeguards or managers. Even in the years leading up to its closure, the job was a popular choice for local youth looking to have fun with friends over the summer.

Ryan Hewett, who worked at the pool from 2012 until its last summer of operation in 2017, has fond memories of the pool. “I had some of the best summers of my life at Coleman’s,” he told LebTown in an email conversation. “I met a lot of really cool people. We would work close to forty-hour weeks which meant a lot of bonding time with the staff.

(Beers)

Hewett began as a lifeguard for his first three years, eventually became the pool manager in 2015 and 2016 and then took a part-time guard position in 2017. Having worked for private pools previously and having never been to the pool as a child, he “was originally hesitant” about the position. He found soon enough that he loved coming to work.

During Hewett’s time at the pool, guard duties included first aid, chemistry upkeep, and cleaning. “I would say it became very popular to work there,” he said, though in the later years it was “kind of difficult to find guards.”

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Still, the work and the people were a draw. Other readers who wrote to LebTown also spoke fondly of their lifeguarding jobs. “We were pretty much a family,” said Hewett.

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Closure

In February of 2018, the Lebanon Daily News reported that Lebanon City Council had voted unanimously to close the pool for the upcoming summer season. At that point in time, the cost of much-needed repairs and upkeep was estimated at $300,000, primarily for a new pool and deck liner. The city solicited input from the public, gathering some 750 survey responses (PDF) from residents on their use of and ideas for the pool.

The Gingrich Memorial Pool at the time of this post, in March 2020. (Groh)

Many respondents agreed that the pool was important to the city, with 75.55% believing it was very or somewhat important that Lebanon continue to “provide an aquatic facility for its citizens and visitors.” However, only a fifth of respondents had used the pool in the 2017 season, with 32.49% having last used it over ten years prior and further 16.25% having never used it.

Many cited a perceived lack of cleanliness and safety as a factor in decreasing attendance. Almost half of respondents stated that they used a private pool instead.

In the last month of 2019, as City Council prepared for a new year, the future of Gingrich Memorial Pool was set. With heavy hearts, the council voted four to one to demolish the pool. At the time of this article, the pool still stands in Coleman Memorial Park––no demolition date has been set yet. The cost of demolition was estimated at $230,000 to $300,000 while the necessary repairs were put at $688,220.

Read More: City Council authorizes Mayor’s plan for bicycle playground at Coleman park

Mayor Sherry Capello emphasized that repairs costing $50,000 or more have been frequent, while chairman Wayne Carey was quoted as saying that “it’s just outlived itself.”

I grew up in the Sand Hill area. Every summer our friends would walk to the pool for the afternoon. We would get a snack at the concession stand, then afterward walk around the park. Very fond memories.

Angela Scibelli

It’s hard to let go of a pool that has served generations of Lebanon citizens. Dozens of its fans have been sharing their memories of the pool on Facebook and elsewhere, and reminiscing on the summers spent in the water or on the poolside. Many recall walking to the park with friends and visiting on swim meets, playground trips, and more. Others, like Royer and Beers, have expressed their fondness for the structure.

“I love that pool,” said Royer, who refers to it as “her baby.”

“I am glad they got another 15 years of use from the pool before it started to show its age again,” wrote Beers. “It’s one of the last above-ground pools like it.” At 80 years old, the pool has been granted a generous extension to its original projected lifespan of 50 years or so.

It looks as though the swim period is up, but for the thousands of people who swam and played there, for all the people who ensured it continued to operate for as long as possible, and for the people whose time and money helped build it, its legacy will remain a part of Lebanon’s history. Thank you, Gingrich Memorial Pool. There was never a better way to spend a summer afternoon.


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