Wednesday, June 24, 2009

USA: Grants Will Fund Rescue of Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House

USA: Grants Will Fund Rescue of Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) After several years of uncertainty, Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House will get a new lease on life, when restoration begins after Labor Day.

The so-called Trenton Bath House (pictures) designed by Kahn and built in 1955 is one those iconic monuments stuck with the wrong name (one thinks of the oxymoron "Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue" in Toledo as an example). Kahn's building is not in Trenton; nor is it a Bath House - and certainly not a Bath House in the traditional Jewish sense. It is really the entry and changing rooms of a community swimming pool, located at 999 Lower Ferry Road, in Ewing, New Jersey, commissioned by the Trenton Jewish Community Center [TJCC] designed as just a small part of what was intended to be a much larger planned (but not built) Jewish Community Center of the Delaware Valley. The small, structurally simple building consists of four square concrete block rooms, surrounding an open atrium forming a cruciform plan

Click here to read more about the history and design of the building [n.b. this linked site, while it appears accurate, reprints material from various sources without attribution].

Despite the pivotal role this design played in the development in Kahn's subsequent work, and the great influence it continues to exert in architectural design (from Robert Venturi to Mario Botta) the concrete block building was for long treated locally as a mere utilitarian structure, and was poorly maintained. Still, the building remained essentially intact. Kahn spoke of the Bath House as a turning point in his design philosophy, "From this came a generative force which is recognizable in every building which I have done since." I think it fair to say that this building relates to Kahn’s later work in the way Bramante’s Tempietto relates to that architect's work at Saint Peter’s. The Bath House is both a functioning everyday building and a working model for bigger things. And yet, it is in part because of its very intimate scale that it is well loved.

When the Jewish Community Center, which owned the building, announced in 2005 plans to move from Ewing to a large site in West Windsor, NJ, there was widespread concern among Kahn building aficionados that the Bath House might not survive a sale to a new owner, despite a National Register designation and a local preservation ordinance listing it as a protected site. The Friends of the Trenton Bath House was formed to monitor the building’s condition and to promote its preservation; Preservation New Jersey listed the Bath House as an endangered site; and in 2006, concerns eased when title was transferred from the Jewish Community Center to Ewing Township and Mercer County. Now, three years later, funds have been secured to carry out the long-awaited restoration of the structure and the surviving Kahn-designed buildings of the adjacent day camp.

Susan Solomon, whose book Louis I. Kahn's Trenton Jewish Community Center was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2000, has provided ISJM and this blog with an update on the long-awaited restoration of the Louis Kahn structures:

Maris Wieczorek, Senior Planner of Mercer County (NJ) reports that renovation of the Trenton Bath House (Louis I. Kahn, 1955) and the adjoining Day Camp ( Kahn, 1957) will begin after Labor Day. Funding, which comes from a $750,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust (from the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund), will be matched (1:1) by Mercer County which bought the property in 2007. The county made the original purchase by innovative use of open space monies. Mercer County now leases the site to Ewing Township which operates the Bath House (changing rooms) and swimming pool as part of its senior and community center.

The current plans include demolition of the snack bar (an eyesore that was attached to the Bath House after Kahn had left the project); erection of a new snack facility close to the place where Kahn designated one in a 1957 plan; improved picnic area; symbolic recreation of the pebble garden in the atrium; new doors and fencing; ADA accessibility. The restoration of the Bath House will include new shingles (matched to old photographs) on the roofs; stabilizing of all concrete block and slab flooring; new drainage in the changing areas; recreation of the benches that Kahn had used. There will also be new shower stalls and toilets. The former basket room [where swimmers checked their street clothes] will be renovated to accommodate an entry desk and support services.

Changes at the Day Camp include demolition of two pavilions that are not repairable. They will be recreated alongside the two remaining pavilions.

Farewell, Mills, and Gatsch is the architectural firm doing all of the restoration and new construction. Heritage Landscapes is in charge of the landscape design.

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