A Pool for the People: The Building of Richmond Park Pool and Bath House
The Great Depression brought winds of great change to America. People were confronted with increasing rates of poverty and unemployment, and felt helpless as welfare programs began to run dry. The crash of the stock market greatly affected the furniture industry housed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids, like the rest of the country, was faced with surging rates of unemployment. Grand Rapids City Manager, George Welsh decided to face the problem at the local level. Welsh saw first hand that the federal relief was not adequately meeting the needs of the people of Grand Rapids, and that local relief organizations were running dry. In Grand Rapids alone, the amount of families on City welfare jumped from two hundred to a few thousand in 1929 . As a risky politician heavily influenced by populist politics, George Welsh decided to take matters into his own hands and cut major corners in the City budget in order to establish a localized relief program.
Welsh used the increased budget to begin the Scrip Labor Project in Grand Rapids. The Scrip Labor Project was essentially a work-for-relief project, which paid each laborer in paper coupons or “scrip” which could then be used at stores set up by the City. Each laborer was paid about fifty cents per hour in Scrip coupons. Scrip Labor was not unique to Grand Rapids, but the extent to which it was used was unprecedented. The projects included snow removal, Grand River bank cleanups and dredging, demolition of old city buildings, cleaning and salvaging of materials from demolished buildings, the building of the Civic Auditorium, painting City Hall, shoe repair, canning foods, and the building of Richmond Park Pool and Bath House.
City Manager Welsh was determined to create new projects that would help to beautify the city while providing for Grand Rapids’s families. In 1929 he proposed to the City Commission that the Scrip Laborers build a pool on the Westside of Grand Rapids. The City Commission approved Welsh’s idea and allotted a small eighteen thousand dollar budget for the pool to be built at Richmond Park. The limited budget did not mesh with Welsh’s big ideas for the proposed pool. Welsh began vetoing the plans he was receiving for the pool, insisting that the pool needed to be larger. To keep him quiet, the frustrated architects drafted Welsh a plan for a 150’ X 150’ pool as a joke. Putting funding issues aside, Welsh accepted the plan.
City Manager Welsh approved that twenty-five men be put to work building Richmond Park Pool through the Scrip Labor Program. Excavation for the pool began in 1930, but the plans did not go as smoothly as Welsh had hoped. After the project had begun, Welsh learned that the prospective pool at Richmond Park would need a filtration system to meet State regulations. Richmond, unlike the city’s smaller pools, could not be drained and refilled overnight. A pool the size of Richmond would take close to two and a half days to drain, and another two to refill. Left with no choice, Welsh motioned the City Commission to okay the building of an elaborate filtration system for the pool. The City Commission agreed, though more corners would have to be cut in the City budget in order to gain extra funding for the pool.
The Richmond Park Pool was completed for opening in the summer of 1931. The fire department assisted in filling what Welsh called “the 830,000 gallon monster” with water from nearby fire hydrants. But, even with the pool completed, the project was not finished. Welsh was approached with the idea of building a bath house at the pool to provide patrons with showers facilities and locker rooms. Once again, without the adequate funding, Welsh accepted the plan.
The Bath House was constructed over the following year, also through the use Scrip Labor. To help save money and to create more Scrip Labor jobs, the bricks from the Bath House where salvaged from the building on the site of the current Civic Auditorium.
Richmond Park Pool and Bath House officially opened on July 13, 1932. The Grand Rapids Press gave an estimation of some six thousand Westsiders in attendance to the opening ceremonies . The ceremony began with swimming and diving competitions, and was complete with a high school band “perched on top of the filtration plant”. When the competitions were finished, over four hundred children jumped into the pool at once to the sound of a bugle. The pool eventually became so crowded that the boys had to clear the pool, allowing the girls to swim, and then taking their turn later. Welsh describes, “I got the thrill of [my] life when we saw the overgrown, outsized monster filled to the brim with happy kids” .
Though the pool itself has been rebuilt, the sense of community the pool has provided the Westside with is as steady as the seventy- five-year-old Bath House. The City Commission, Mayor, and citizens of Grand Rapids have been fighting for the pool since its humble beginning on the draft tables in 1929. Since then, the pool has hardly passed a season where funding has not been an overwhelming issue. But thanks to George Welsh’s early vision of a grand pool on the Westside and city politicians after him, Richmond Park Pool and Bath House have been able to provide a wealth of resources for the Westside neighborhood.
“Building State’s Largest Outdoor Pool”. The Grand Rapids Herald. 26 Oct. 1930.
“Building of Richmond Park Pool Photos, The Scrip Labor Collection 1929-1932”. The Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department, Grand Rapids Public Library. Coll. 67, box 2, folder 1.
Harms, Richard H. “Paid in Scrip”. Michigan History Magazine (January/ February 1991): 37-42.
“Now Under Construction at Richmond Park”. The Grand Rapids Herald. 27 Dec. 1931.
Olson, Gordon. The Grand Rapids Sampler. Grand Rapids: the Grand Rapids Historical Society, 1992.
“Six Thousand Attend Richmond Pool Rites”. The Grand Rapids Press. 14 July 1932.
“Will Open Swimming Pools June 18 as Schools Close”. The Grand Rapids Herald. 9 June 1932.
Welsh, George. “How Richmond Park Pool was Built- When they said it Couldn’t be Done”. The Interpreter. 31 Jan. 1974.
Grand Rapids Historical Commission article: http://www.historygrandrapids.org/explore.php?cat=4&essay=17*
Geographic coordinates are 42.995859° N, 85.694733° WLatitude: 42°59′45.092″N