Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pitkin Avenue Public Bath - Brownsville

Pitkin Avenue Public Bath (image source: Google Maps)
While not much to look at anymore, the building at 1752 Pitkin Street in Brownsville is one of three remaining Brooklyn structures built for the forgotten cause of “baths for all”. During the 19th and early 20th century the tenements of major cities lacked the plumbing infrastructure we consider to be universal today. In 1894 only 306 out of 255,000 tenements in New York City had bathtubs.[1] So, one of the causes taken up during the progressive era was making public bathing facilities available for those who did not have them in their homes. By making public bathing facilities available to all, The Public Bath Movement hoped to improve the public health, dignity and upward mobility for those living in tenements.

Interior of Pitkin Avenue Public Baths
Plan and Section of "Rain Bath" Stalls
Most public baths in New York City were planned and designed based on recommendations from Dr. Simon Baruch and the Association for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Poor (A.I.C.P.). Dr. Baruch, also known as the "father of the public bath", was a professor of hydrotherapy at Columbia University, an outspoken advocate for public baths and the father of financier Bernard Baruch.[2] Included in the A.I.C.P. recommendations were two standard lot sizes, a preference for "rain baths" (showers) over bathtubs and greater capacity for male bathers.[1][2] The A.I.C.P. architects Cady, Berg & See provided two model plans, the "Type A" for small city lots and "Type B" for larger lots.[1][3]

Pitkin Avenue Public Bath Floor Plans
Designed by architect A.S. Headman, the Pitkin Avenue Public Bath was built in 1903 at a cost of $84,456. The floor plan (shown above) was based on the Type B model plan for 50’x100’ lots and is almost identical to the plan for the Public Bath on Huron Street in Greenpoint.[2] Also similar to the Public Bath on Huron Street, the building’s fa├žade has been heavily modified. The ground floor has been partially demolished and retro fitted with a glass storefront, the cornice has been removed and the building has been given a veneer of cheap red, white and blue paint. The original structure was designed to be “imposing in appearance with an architectural style recalling ancient Roman public baths with classical pilasters, columns, arches and cornices”.[2] The layout of the bath included a separate entrance for men and woman with a booth in the middle, which offered soap and towel rentals; the second floor was for boys.[4] “The women’s side contained 28 rain baths and three bathtubs; the men’s side 28 rain baths and two tubs and boys’ floor 38 rain baths and one tub”.[1] 

As a result of the tenement house law being passed in 1901 the need for public baths in Brooklyn was undermined from the beginning. While the law only required a toilet be provided in each flat, many developers also included a bathtub as well. This resulted in the owners of older tenement houses retrofitting toilets and bathtubs into their apartments lest they risk losing their tenants to the newer buildings.[2] Eventually, laws were passed requiring all apartments to have bathing facilities and by mid-century, public bath use had declined significantly. With dwindling patronage, the Pitkin Avenue Public Bath was closed in 1949 amid city cutbacks.[5]

There used to be 25 public baths in New York city, seven of which were located in Brooklyn.[2] With the exception of Public Bath No. 7, the public baths of Brooklyn were designed by either architect Axel S. Hedman or Louis A. Voss.[3] Below is a list that includes all of Brooklyn's public baths.

Brooklyn Public Baths:
  • Public Bath on Huron Street: Constructed 1903-04 Closed 1960
  • Public Bath at 486 Hicks: Constructed 1903, Demolished in 1941 for construction of the BQE - Architect A. S. Hedman
  • Public Bath at 42 Duffield Street near Concorn Street: Constructed 1905, Demolished
  • Public Bath at Wilson Avenue and Willoughby Avenue: Constructed 1908, Demolished
  • Public Bath at 1752 Pitkin Avenue: Constructed 1903, Closed 1949 (Architect A. S. Hedman)
  • Public Bath No. 7 at Presidents Street: Constructed 1906-10 (Architect Raymond F. Aimirail)
  • Public Bath at 14 Montrose Avenue near Union Avenue: Constructed 1903, Demolished

  1. Gerhard, William Modern Baths and Bathhouses New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1908
  2. Williams, Marily Thornton Washing "The Great Unwashed" Public Baths in Urban America 1840-1920. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991
  3. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Public Bath No. 7 Designation Report. New York 11, September 1984.
  4. Milburn, Terry “Soaps Up a Story in a City Sudsatorium” Daily News. 5 February 1956
  5. “Two Boro Public Baths Closed to Save 150 Gs” Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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