In the bowels of Central School in Riverside there is a dark, eerie place. Glazed in white, grey and dark green tile, covered in a thin film of dust and as cold as a crypt, it sits just below the office of District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson, waiting.
Some 20 yards long and nearly seven yards wide, the floor slopes from south to north. At the north end there’s roughly three feet between the floor and the ceiling. But the floor slopes sharply moving south to a depth of about eight feet and recessed glazed tile ladders high on the north wall offer a tantalizing, yet unreachable and fruitless way out.
If it sounds like some long-forgotten Central School dungeon for naughty students, you’d be dead … wrong.
It’s actually the long-forgotten Central School swimming pool.
No one has dived into the pool for some 84 years. In fact the only way into the space is through a trap door in the floor of a room at the back of the district office. And to get to the trap door, it’s necessary to squeeze past a large furnace. A narrow metal ladder is the only way down into what was once the deep end.
So what’s an abandoned swimming pool doing below the District 96 offices? You have to go back to 1914 to find the answer.
The pool was part of a significant capital improvement project to Central School and, apparently, one of the district’s most spectacular failures.
In 1914, the school district issued $55,000 in bonds to build an addition to what was then simply known as the Riverside Grammar School on Woodside Avenue. While the new building included several new classroom, the effort also focused on athletic facilities, including a full-size gymnasium and its centerpiece, a state-of-the-art swimming pool.
“A swimming pool has long been the fond desire of many residents and to have it realized on such a grand scale is indeed agreeable,” said a report in the Sept. 3, 1914 Riverside News.
“The swimming pool … will be one of the most excellent of its kind, as it will be entirely of white tile, with the exception of the walls and ceilings. For use in competitions the floor in the pool will be set with three dark green lines running parallel to the sides at equal distances apart, so as to divide the width into four equal alleys.”
And, at least at the outset of the project, the pool would be a bargain. According to news reports of the time, the pool was a gift to the district and a memorial to the late Abraham Mitchell, whose widow “knew the interest Mr. Mitchell manifested in the project.”
But while the pool’s construction had been accounted for, its operation had not.
By December 1915, the school board was threatening to close the pool and looking to the public for handouts.
On Dec. 30, 1915, the Riverside News reported that “the equipment is very complete, heating now quite satisfactory and all that is necessary is a sufficient sum to pay running expenses for the coming few months.
“Unless our people, who can help in this particular, will do a share the tank will have to be abandoned.”
In November 1915 the school district had sent out a letter to residents asking to pitch in for the pool fund. They received all of $150 for their efforts. Between July 15 and Oct. 31, it had cost the district just over $2,300 to operate the pool. On Nov. 1, the district’s cash balance for the pool was $70.
“Are we going to forfeit the benefits to be derived from this pool through the lack of funds?” the Riverside News asked.
The answer to that was simple. By 1918, the pool was closed.
During a 1921 push to reopen the pool, the reasons for the pool’s closure were twofold. “Unfortunately, it was closed due to so many of our young men being away to war and also due to the increase (sic) cost of coal and salaries,” claimed the Riverside News on July 8, 1921.
While it seems unlikely that a lack of male swimmers was the reason for the closure, the cost of coal in late 1918 was certainly a reality.
A coal furnace heated the pool, and during World War I coal prices boomed. The country also faced a coal shortage in the winter of 1918, one so severe that it forced the closure of many schools and factories.
But nearly three years after the war’s end, there was a growing movement to reopen the pool via a pool pass fundraising campaign.
“In order to assure the success of the swimming pool at least during the summer and fall months, we want 100 people in the town to buy individual season tickets at $25 each,” proclaimed the editor of the Riverside News on July 8, 1921.
“Riverside surely has pep enough to put this over and we hope that you will do your share to make it possible.”
The fundraising campaign was a success, at least temporarily. By early August 1921, the pool was open thanks in large part to members of the pool committee, which included an “A. Mitchell,” likely a family member of the original pool patron.
But the revival of the pool was short-lived. Although it’s not clear exactly when the pool closed for good, a Riverside News article from July 18, 1929 noted that by that time “the pool was converted into a gymnasium for the lower grades of the central school two years ago after it had been used for storage space for several years following its abandonment after attempts to keep the water purified had failed.”
The “water purification” charge may or may not have been a reason for the closing of the pool. That rumor, however, had been in circulation for many years prior to the 1929 article.
Back in 1921, the Riverside News acknowledged that “the claim is made that the sewer has at some time backed up. That is impossible now we know, because means of prevention have been installed which, if out of repair from long disuse will cost but a trifle to repair.”
But when a final effort to reopen the pool was brought forward in 1939, the state of the pool’s filtration and water circulation systems were a deal-killer.
In December of 1939, school board President R.E. Dooley submitted a report estimating that improvements to the pool and adjacent area required to bring them up to code would amount to more than $22,000.
Two years later the United States had entered World War II and the pool improvement idea evaporated. After the war, the Riverside Public Schools performed a facilities survey, in which no mention of the pool was made at all, although a Riverside Public Schools Bulletin from February 1948 stated that it “does not seem advisable for both the high school and elementary school to build separate pools. … It would seem advisable for the pool to be built at the Riverside-Brookfield High School.”
In 1951, voters approved a special school bond issue for $890,000, setting in motion a comprehensive improvement program at the district’s schools, including at Central School and Hauser Junior High (then known as the Intermediate School).
And in 1968, the district kicked off another building campaign, which included several improvements at both Hauser Junior High and Central School. It’s unclear exactly when the work was done, but in forging ahead to create modern office and learning spaces, the new offices for the District 96 administrative staff were built directly above the old pool, sealing it from view for good.