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What Became of New York City's Ubiquitous Public Bathhouses?

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New York City's free public bath program: making the "Great Unwashed" feel so fresh and so clean since the late 19th century. Made less for recreation than to remedy New York's public health plights at a time when a survey found there to be only one bathtub for every 79 families living on the Lower East Side, public bathhouses were a great boon to both to the bathers and those who had to inhale their newly cleansed B.O. Not to be confused with the abundance of Russian, Turkish, Korean and other baths to be found in the city today, these early structures were municipally funded public cleaning stations, if you will, where the city's poorest could go to relax and luxuriate not for leisure but for hygiene's sake. Below, explore nine of the most ornate and interesting structures that once held public baths, and what's happened to them over the 40 years since most were decommissioned. For what is easily the most extensive history of these bastions of cleanliness online, check out Michael Minn's website.
—Hannah Frishberg

9 Centre Market Place People's Baths
Predating the 1901 city-funded bathing facilities, the Centre Market Place People's Baths, located just north of Grand Street between Centre and Mulberry, served as a kind of prototype to the publicly funded baths that would follow. For five cents you had yourself a bath, plus soap and a towel, and by 1891, figures said 115,685 New Yorkers were utilizing the facility annually. In 1909 the bath closed. The building was torn down at some point in the intervening century, because today there's only a parking lot where the building once stood.

Asser Levy Public Baths
A stunning bathhouse still in use today as a public pool and health club, the Asser Levy Public Baths on East 23rd Street were completed in 1906 in the Roman Revival style, featuring mullion windows, skylights, stone urns, vaulted ceilings, and balconies. Built with gendered entrances, the building was landmarked in 1974 and is currently being used by the city as a rec center, pool included. Chalk up a surprising victory for continuity!

Rivington Street Public Bath
The Rivington Street Public Bath (later renamed the Baruch bathhouse) opened on March 23, 1901, the first public bathhouse in the city of New York. Featuring both indoor and outdoor bathing pools, 45 showers and five tubs for men, plus 22 showers for women, the public bath at 326 Rivington was such a success that long lines in the summer of 1906 nearly caused a riot. In 1975, the City of New York cemented the building in, and today it sits behind the Baruch Housing Projects, a decrepit slab of concrete that's the last place you'd go to get clean today. Once an example of public use projects, today NYCHA employees don't even know what the building is, or once was. "I've never seen anyone in there," one custodian commented. "No clue what it's supposed to be used for."

Allen Street Bath
The last man standing of New York's municipally funded baths, the Allen Street Bath provided its visitors with opportunities for relative cleanliness until 1975. The building's fate seemed doomed when it was sealed in 1988, but 1992 brought a new lease on life when it was auctioned off to a Chinese congregation, the Church of Grace to Fujianese, which still uses it today.

↑ Clarkson Street Bathhouse
Though it's since been converted into the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center at 83 Carmine Street, the bathhouse the building was originally used for wasn't on Carmine Street, but Clarkson Street, a corner which no longer exists. Displaced in the 1913 extension of Seventh Avenue, when the City of New York destroyed 194 buildings to "fix" one of the last irregular street grids in Manhattan so as to clear space for a wider thoroughfare, Clarkson Street has since morphed into Carmine Street, and thus the Carmine Street (opposed to Clarkson Street) bathhouse was reborn. In its first incarnation, there were the typical showers, tubs, and a gym complex on the first two floors, and an additional open-air classroom on the roof for sickly children. Minus the last bit, the rec center has many of the same facilities. Another historic relic, semi-preserved.

Milbank Memorial Bath
Built with money donated by an heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company (can you imagine if she'd filled the pools with dairy products?), the Milbank Memorial Bath opened in January 1904. Capable of holding 3,000 folks at once, the $140,000 structure at 325-327 East 38th Street became a wet-wash laundry in 1914. According to Minn, the structure at the address today seems to "be of appropriate vintage" although it is unclear if it is definitely the old bathhouse building that has been repurposed or not. Either way, the plot of land is now home to Indonesia's mission to the United Nations.

West 60th Street Bathhouse
This building may have been built to cater to the poorest of the urban poor, but, as Minn notes, nothing says class like those Romanesque arched windows. Constructed for "just" $139,300 in 1906—today, in that area, that's pretty much a year's rent—the bathhouse at 232 West 60th Street was matched with the challenge of keeping the residents of Hell's Kitchen relatively clean with the help of 49 showers for men and 20 for women. It's now the Gertrude Elderle Recreation Center. Still a public place, +1.

West 41st Street Bathhouse
These last two weren't so lucky. The bathhouse at 327 West 41st Street has been deleted from history—where once people showered and cleansed their bodies (and souls, some thought), today there is only a loading dock for the McGraw-Hill Building next door. Sucked up by time, the lovely 1904 structure would seem to have seen the wrecking ball far earlier than its bathhouse mates, according to some fancy arithmetic regarding the street grid performed by Minn.

West 28th Street Bathhouse
In its heyday, 407 West 28th Street had it all: showers, an indoor swimming pool, laundry facilities, an indoor track, a roof garden, a playground, a gymnasium. The penultimate public bath built during the early 20th-century movement—before funds were rerouted towards the recreational side of things—today the building is pretty clearly not there anymore. Even bathhouse authority Michael Minn is stumped as to what structure currently stands atop its old foundation. Anyone know? Hit up the tipline.
· Public Baths [Michael Minn]
· History Lessons archive [Curbed]