Princeton-based architects Farewell Mills Gatsch have nearly finished restoration of the famed Louis Kahn Trenton Bath House, first opened in 1955. And, yes, it will continue to serve as a bath house. The Garden State Historic Preservation Turst Fund and Mercer County Open Space have contributed funding toward this architectural gem. In anticipation of a July re-opening, I remembered a tour I took several years ago, when its continuity was in question. Here’s what I wrote five years ago:
When thinking of Louis Kahn – one of the most important architects of the 20th century – we often picture the soaring spaces: the triangle in the oculus at the Yale University Art Gallery; the promenade to the sea at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; the sheer magnitude of the Capitol of Bangladesh, with its circles and triangles, surrounded by a shimmering pool of water; the repeating cylindrical tubes of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Trenton Bath House, in stark contrast, is the equivalent of a black-and-white film made early in a career than spanned the dawn of color film. It contains the building blocks of the grander buildings that followed.
Sort of a temple to water, the bathhouse is sprouting multi-hued mold on some of the cement blocks. This isn’t quite as charming as it may seem, but the unfortunate symptom of water damage. Other areas have been repaired, and with its plastic orange shower curtains billowing in the breeze (à la Christo’s Gates) and boarded-up snack bar – tacked, against the architect’s wishes, on one wall of the bathhouse – it is an edifice that has seen better days.
And yet the project is considered one of Kahn’s most important works. Built for the Jewish Community Center of the Delaware Valley in 1955 and still functioning, it is visited two to three times a month by architects and historians around the world. Buses and taxis transport architects from Newark International Airport to Ewing to see the shrine to 20th century architecture.
“Not in Trenton and not a bathhouse, the Trenton Bath House comprises changing rooms for the outdoor pool at the JCC on Lower Ferry Road in Ewing,” writes Susan Solomon, author of Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center (Princeton Architectural Press, 2000). “Louis Kahn… believed it inaugurated his own mature career.” The Trenton Bath House will be 50 years old this summer.
“It was built a year later than the Fontainebleu in Miami, which was the standard for luxury and how to indulge in leisure,” says Ms. Solomon. By contrast, the Bath House is an exercise in simplicity.
On a random steamy day in June, Princeton University architecture professors Ralph Lerner and Carles Vallhonrat, who at one time worked for Kahn, were spotted touring the facility. “We worry that it should have a nice destiny,” says Mr. Vallhonrat. “We want to see it preserved and looking young. All over the world people are worried about this building.” He would like to see it purchased by the state and kept as a park.
Mr. Lerner says he would like to see it “resurrected.”
In fact, the JCC has plans to sell the entire facility, including a day camp designed by Kahn and a main building not designed by Kahn, in about two years. The organization is purchasing 80 acres on Clarksville Road in West Windsor, and expects to open a new facility there in two or three years, with indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, soccer fields, a fitness center, day camp and Early Childhood Learning Center, and offices for Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
“The JCC is no longer conveniently located and is hampered by aging facilities,” says a display in the building’s lobby. Ford Farewell Mills & Gatsch conducted an architectural renovation survey and discovered it would cost nearly $1 million to renovate the facility. Combined with the changing demographic, the JCC determined it would be prudent to move.
In 1997, the JCC had attempted to demolish the Bath House, and it was added to Preservation New Jersey’s list of 10 most endangered historic sites.
Ms. Solomon has been involved with preserving the bathhouse since the early ’80s – she learned about it while working at the Princeton University architectural slide library, and at one time tried to form a Friends of the Trenton Bath House. Ms. Solomon earned a doctorate in art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997. In 1984, she helped to get the Bath House listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The Bath House is widely recognized as a transition point in the architect’s work. “I discovered myself after designing that little concrete-block bath house in Trenton,” the architect wrote in a letter. The flat-roofed residences Kahn designed in Roosevelt preceded the Bath House.
Inspired by Kahn’s sketches of ancient ruins, it has a cruciform layout and pyramidal roofs with exposed timber and an oculus to let in the sky and light. The roofs do not sit on the structures, but float above it leaving space for breezes to come through. It is cool on a stifling day, and the gaps between the walls and roof allow the light to form interesting patterns on the concrete walls.
At one time it had a circular pebble garden but that has been removed, as was a mural that evoked the mosaics of the floor at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
“Concrete block was very new then, and Kahn had a fantastic eye for the color of the block,” says Mr. Vallhonrat. “When you increase the surface area of the block, it changes its color, and the color of the mortar.”
“People have written about him as a mystic and about his interest in the Kabbalah, but he didn’t have a clue,” Ms. Solomon says about Kahn, a secular Jew. “He saw light as decoration, the way it would splash the walls.” Ms. Solomon compares the Bath House to a Sukkoth, a primitive structure for the Jewish harvest festival that also lets in light.
“Often I lay on a wooden bench in the ladies dressing room looking up at the ribbon of blue that was outlined by the unusual rooftop,” writes Judi Hasson, who grew up in Lawrence. “I really enjoyed the touch and feel of the cement walls, the circle in the middle that had dirt, not shrubs, and the summer dances to loud Motown music beneath those strange pyramid tops that were missing their points. Sometimes it rained and the swimmers, along with their Ma-Jong playing mothers, took refuge under the pyramids. Other times, it was the central meeting place at day’s end.”
Ralph Lerner proposes disassembling the Bath House and “reconstructing it (as exactly as technically possible) in a new public setting without any program whatsoever. Place it where it will be appreciated as the profound work of architecture it so desperately wanted to be.”
Corey Brennan, chairman of the classics department at Rutgers, suggests moving the structure nearby to The College of New Jersey, where it can become “flexible art, performance, social activity spaces.”
Interest in the Bath House has been revived since the film My Architect was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Made by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, the film is both about the many projects the architect designed, and a son’s search for a father he never knew. Kahn was married to one woman, with whom he had a daughter, but was also in relationships with two other women who worked for his firm, and had children with them, as well.
Nathaniel, who was 40 when he made the film and 11 when his father died, recalls always asking his mother when his father would come to live with them. She promised he would as soon as he divorced, and she believed it, one senses in the film. Mother and son would travel to Maine for vacation, waiting for the father to come, believing he would.
Kahn’s death was as mysterious as his life: He collapsed in the men’s room of New York’s Penn Station, an apparent heart attack. The address on the passport he carried was crossed out – Nathaniel’s mother told him that was the proof his father planned to come and live with them – and so it took three days to identify the body of the world-renowned architect. Kahn never lived in anything he designed – he didn’t believe in owning anything – and died bankrupt. Only one of his projects ever made money.