Poolside reflections

A look at the history of Brookfield's swimming pool

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By Chris Stach

Columnist

This article originally was published in the Nov. 26, 2003 edition of the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark.

People used to say, for years after, that they could still smell the odor of chlorine lingering here, at a certain section of land, in Congress Park. However, current investigation has failed to detect the scent of what was once Brookfield's most popular public "Water Show."

Residents new to Brookfield since 1985 have never known the joy of swimming, diving or just plain wading in the Brookfield Swimming Pool, once at the southwest corner of Arthur and Gerritsen avenues.

There was a time when being able to swim in the village wasn't just a dream restricted to the olden days, when Salt Creek was clear and clean.

It all began simply enough, with talk--talk by the Brookfield Kiwanis Club, in the early 1950s, about what to do about the growing problem of teenagers wandering the streets, with nothing to do.

Just talk, at first, by civic-minded citizens. The idea of having a village swimming pool was brought up, by degrees, and it seemed an ideal solution to the problem. A pool would keep teens occupied, out of trouble and make them strong and healthy.

By July, 1955, the Kiwanis Club was acting to make the idea of a pool into a concrete reality. They began by "testing the waters," in asking residents, by way of a questionnaire, if they thought the enterprise was a good idea. The "returns indicated a strong pro-pool sentiment."

Five Kiwanis members then plunged deeply into solving the problems involved. They were given money and the authority to create the pool, organizing as a separate entity from Kiwanis under the name of the Brookfield Swimming Pool Association, a non-profit corporation. The five members became the pool's board of directors.

Now came the first real problem--one of funding. The Brookfield Kiwanis Club, one of the smallest in Illinois, issued bonds in $100 amounts, under the name of the Swimming Pool Association. The bonds had an interest rate of 4 percent with a 20 year maturity life. Only Brookfield residents could buy them, and, if not enough money was collected, it would all be returned.

A total of $50,000 was accumulated in the first bond drive in early 1956, a promising sum. The second bond drive from August to November of 1956 brought in an additional $70,000. The board of directors voted to go ahead and build the pool, looking forward to having it ready for use in 1957.

The architectural firm of Friedman, Alschuler and Sincere was engaged to draw up the plans. They were warned of the rocky, limestone shelf lying only a few feet beneath ground level. The firm created an initial design for a pool costing $225,000, which was way over the estimated budget.

The board of directors, now doubled in size to 10 persons, met with the architects and reduced the cost to $175,000, still a daunting sum. With the help of better contracts and still more skimming down, the cost fell even more, without changing the basic size of the pool itself.

Even then, the pool board had not yet decided on where to put the pool. Kiwanis Park, in retrospect, would've seemed to be the ideal place, but it was judged as being unacceptable.

This was not the first time the park had been thought of as a site for a pool. Way back, on July 4, 1936, Brookfield President John Bergman said in a speech that the newly named Kiwanis Park would become a center for recreation, including a swimming pool.

After much internal discussion and external negotiation, the site at the corner of Arthur and Gerritsen avenues was chosen and purchased. Actually, about two entire blocks of vacant property was bought, far in excess of the pool's needs. One wonders if the Kiwanis Club and pool board had visions of a need for a gigantic parking lot, or maybe a playground and picnic area to rival Ehlert Park's. The pool-owned property ranged from Gerritsen to Sahler Avenues, and Arthur to Raymond Avenues, with the exception of a house or two on private land.

According to C.P. Hall, a resident since 1976 and a former president of Kiwanis Club, "The land was dirt cheap. Nobody wanted it because of the limestone layer so close to the surface. No one could afford to build proper storm sewers because of it. The limestone was so close that the cost of digging up the rock to lay sewers and waterlines was prohibitive."

So, unwanted by any developer, the acres of former farm and prairie land became pool property.

Construction of the pool began in the spring of 1957, but a combination of bad weather and construction problems delayed progress until 1958, when financial problems threatened to postpone work.

Some $30,000 more was needed, but another bond drive netted only $10,000. In spite of this, concrete, wiring, fencing and landscaping were completed to an acceptable degree. Due to the presence of limestone, the pool was built up, above the surface of the land surrounding it.

May 17, 1958 was set to be the official date of the Open House. The area bustled with activity, racing against time to meet that date. The pool opened for public inspection, and the people liked what they saw, opening their wallets and purses to buy additional bonds. Further work continued on the pool, now preparing to celebrate its "Grand Opening and Water Show" at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14, 1958.

The public turned out en masse to attend the opening, a truly unique event in Brookfield's history. People had to buy tickets just to attend at the price of $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for children under 12. This was no free open house, but offered much, much more. In spite of the admission charge, about 2,500 people turned out to see the spectacle.

Movie stars were brought out from Hollywood, Calif. Beautiful screen actress Linda Darnell made an appearance with veteran actor Sidney Blackmer.

Never heard of them? Well, Blackmer was born in 1895, so he was already 63 years old in 1958. He first appeared in silent movies beginning with "Perils of Pauline" in 1914, but he hit his stride when the "talkies" arrived in 1929.

In 1931, he played the role of "Big Boy" in "Little Caesar." All in all, he had roles in 112 pictures as of 1958. In 1949, he began to appear on television, on such programs as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and, much later, the soap operas "Dr. Kildare" and "Ben Casey." In 1958, he was appearing as The Judge on "The Rifleman."

Linda Darnell, born on Oct. 16, 1923, always looked older than her true age, and this almost fooled talent scouts sent to the Dallas-Fort Worth area where she lived. She was judged to be too young to be a leading lady at age 13. But at age 16, she made her first movie, "A Hotel for Women."

Then came roles in "The Mark of Zorro," "Blood and Sand," "Anna and the King of Siam," "Centennial Summer" and "Forever Amber," to name a few of the 36 movies she had made as of 1958.

Local "Hollywood" resident stars appeared, also. Carol Smith had made good as a noted contralto opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Donald F. "Red" Blanchard was a popular singer and comedian on his own WLS-AM radio morning show. Though born in Wisconsin, this "farm boy messing around with banjoes, mandolins and guitars," lived along the railroad tracks, at 8654 Riverside Ave.

The big event began at 2 p.m. promptly, with a flag ceremony. Members from the Loyal Order of the Moose, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Veterans acted as the color guard.

The singing of the National Anthem was led by Carol Smith, with the S.E. Gross School Band providing instrumental accompaniment. The invocation and blessing was given by Monsignor Joseph Kush, pastor of St. Barbara's Church.

Red Blanchard, master of ceremonies, introduced the president of the Swimming Pool Association, John R. Tuschall, who, in turn, introduced the association board members and the distinguished guests present.

Next came a series of musical selections by the Gross School Band, after which came the dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting, which was an event within the event.

Tuschall stepped into the single small boat, bobbing on the chlorinated waters, and helped Darnell down to a spot just in front of him. Using a gasoline-powered fan attached to the back of the boat, they motored away from the edge of the pool to the red ribbon, stretched a few feet above the cool liquid surface. Darnell must've felt quite calm, at the time. She was known to be deathly afraid of fire, and what danger could there be from that, with so much water around?

While a young man in the pool held the boat in place, Darnell, using ordinary scissors, cut the big red bow off the ribbon, held the bow high in the air, and then handed it to Tuschall. Then, with another snip, the ribbon was parted. It was all very simply done.

Blackmer appears to have been there, but as little more than a famous presence, signing autographs and chatting with people. He wasn't part of the ribbon ceremony at all, unless he was holding one end of the ribbon when Darnell cut it.

Details of his "role" at this event are non-existent. In fact, judging by newspaper articles written after the pool opening, he wasn't even mentioned as being there. Newspaper photos don't show him at all.

But he surely did make an appearance. A program booklet exists that bears his signature on its first page, together with opera singer Carol Smith's. So unless he sent in a stand-in to sign his name, he was there.

Then came a demonstration of synchronized swimming by the West Suburban YMCA Synchro-Swim Club. Following the swimmers was a bathing suit fashion show, with men and women wearing styles old and new; a canoe handling demonstration; skin and S.C.U.B.A. diving demonstrations; and Olympic swimming champion Adolph Kiefer, together with his company of swimmers and divers, featured "in various water stunts, much to the delight of the audience."

Only the finale remained. Local resident and popular singer Joy Layne, who had signed a recording contract with Mercury Records at the age of 15, gathered with the "entire cast" and sang a song upon the waters, aided by the school band.

The Brookfield Swimming Pool was open for the summer.

Now for some statistics: 975 people could use the pool at once, diving into 350,000 gallons of filtered water and swimming over a water surface area of 9,750 square feet. The pool size was 50-by-165 feet, with a depth ranging from two feet to 12 feet.

Total cost, with land: $175,000.

A sundeck over the bathhouse overlooked the pool, and 254 cars were able to use the parking lot. The three swim periods a day were from 10 a.m. to noon, 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Daily and guest fees differed on weekdays and weekends: On weekdays, children under 12 paid only 75 cents and anyone over 12 paid $1. On weekends and holidays, children paid $1, and those above 12 paid $1.50.

Though money for season memberships and regular admissions poured in, the pool wasn't out of financial trouble yet. In July of 1958, M.A. Lombard and Sons filed suit against the Swimming Pool Association, charging that it had yet to pay $33,770.

Tuschall denied the debt, saying that Lombard and Sons did not complete the pool on time. Lombard and Son's inaction delayed the pool opening and resulted in a loss of pool revenue. Apparently a judge agreed with the Pool Association, since the pool did not go bankrupt. Perhaps a token payment was made.

The years rolled on and, in the 1970s, the pool again found itself floundering in financial waters. This time the Association sold off some of the unused parcels of prairie land in its possession.

It helped, but there was still a significant drain on the pool's yearly budget. Property taxes on the land still owned amounted to $20,000 a year. This was taken every year out of a $60,000 budget.

"We were a not-for profit corporation," said Hall, "but somehow not tax-free."

By 1985, various schemes to keep the pool going were being discussed by Pool Association Director Charles Larsen and Hall. It was even suggested that a church take over the pool, because that way the $20,000 property tax wouldn't have to be paid. Still, the pool managed to open for the entire 1985 season, with hopes at the end for a 1986 season.

Everyone wondered about the fate of the pool. Timothy Lenzi and others had signs made saying "Save Our Pool," and picketed the village hall and even Buresh's Lobster House, on nights the Kiwanis Club met there.

Lenzi had started working at the pool when in high school, and had risen up the "swim pool career path," going from locker room attendant in 1979 to lifeguard to assistant manager at the end.

"We were basically, for single or divorced parents, a baby-sitting service, a safe haven," said Lenzi. "There was plenty of supervision. In all the years the pool operated, we never had a single drowning."

So, to its final days, the pool accomplished its initial goal, giving teenagers with time on their hands something to do. They had a place to swim and be healthy, and even where they could get a job over the summer.

Those who remember the pool cannot help but sigh when they smell the familiar scent of chlorine, whether it comes wafting up from a bottle of bleach or from someone's backyard pool.

Those were the best of days for kids, teens and residents, and the worst of days for the pool's ongoing financial problems. In the late 1980s, houses went up on the pool land.

But for 27 years, Brookfield's "One and Only Public Water Show" existed, and it was fun while it lasted.

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