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In the early years of the 20th century, Cleveland began opening free, year-round, public bath houses where working-class families, too poor to afford indoor hot-water plumbing, could wash themselves clean of industrial grime.
The first public baths had been established by various settlement houses, places that helped struggling immigrants and downtrodden tenement families.
But in 1904, the first city-operated bath house opened on Orange Avenue near the edge of the industrial valley, attracting more than 113,000 people during the first 12 months of operation.
By 1908 there were about a half dozen bath houses in the city, some of them housing gymnasiums and indoor pools and charging 2-to-5 cents for a bar of soap and the use of a towel.
But by mid-century, as the city moved into the modern era, and more workers lived with indoor plumbing, most of the bathhouses – elegantly appointed with brick, marble and tile -- were torn down or converted into other uses.
Today, four of them stand as city recreation centers – Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation on Woodland Avenue; E.J. Kovacic Recreation on St. Clair Avenue; Central Recreation on Central Avenue and Clark Recreation on Clark Avenue.
The four buildings still display features of classic architecture and aesthetic detail common to public structures built in an earlier century.
Lettering chiseled in stone over the front entrance of Central Recreation still reads: “The Central Avenue Public Baths.”
The Kovacic center, an imposing edifice built as the St. Clair Bath House in 1919, features brick corbeling and carved stone medallions with the letters “StC.”
Clark Avenue rec features a tile roof and heavy, Ionic columns framing two front entrances, over which “Men” and “Women” are chiseled in stone.
The Clark Avenue baths, which opened in 1908, posted its rules and regulations in six languages – Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Bohemian, English and German.
It had 35 private shower “cabinets” and a gang shower that could hold 50 boys at a time.
When the bath house era ended in the mid-1950s, converting four of them into recreation centers was a logical move since they were already equipped with indoor pools, gymnasiums and showers.
Kids today, still swim in pools and play in gymnasiums built a century ago, at a time when a simple bath was a luxury.
Public baths in Cleveland began as a public health issue in a growing industrial city, gritty with coal dust and foundry ash.
“There was a huge surge of immigration in the 1890s,” said history Professor David Goldberg of Cleveland State University, an expert in early 20th century U.S. history. “The neighborhoods were densely populated and they didn’t have plumbing or running water.”
Professor Goldberg notes that Mayor Tom L. Johnson, who served from 1901 to 1909, saw crowded tenement housing not only as a public health issue, but as a moral obligation to help the poor.
“Tom L. Johnson had a deep concern for the welfare of the poor,” said Professor Goldberg. “He really emphasized public health and public improvements.”
As slum populations grew in the city, so too did concerns of spreading diseases.
An article, “The Public Baths of Cleveland,” published in the November 1908 addition of a trade journal called “Modern Sanitation,” reads:
“The laborer, whose daily sweat mortises the duplicating structures called trade, must have his health taken care of before all others on God’s earth. That health will be maintained by nothing so much as a bath.”
Besides Mayor Johnson, one of the biggest proponents of public bath houses was Frederick Howe, a reformist lawyer who had served as a state senator and a Cleveland councilman.
Through his initiative, the Orange Avenue bath house, since torn down, was built in an area of the city that, according to the Modern Sanitation article, “had spelled vice, dirt, policemen working overtime and murky hopelessness.
“Howe,” the article said, “saw that something must be done to bathe these soiled-stained bodies and so change the whole moral status of the neighborhood.”
The Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, taking a survey of tenement housing conditions in the city, issued a report in 1904 noting, “About 99 percent of people inhabiting these districts are absolutely without respectable provision for bathing.
“Over one third must bathe in the water obtained from a faucet in the yard shared with several other families.”
But as the city grew economically and a new middle-class prosperity began to spread, back-yard outhouses and water pumps began to disappear, as did crowded tenements and public bath houses.
In 1941, all bath houses in the city, except for Broadway Bath House, which opened in 1906, were no longer operating. A newspaper headline back then declared the city’s bath houses were “Washed Up.”
In 1954, the city closed the Broadway facility, putting an end to the half-century era of public baths in Cleveland. Prosperity and the middle class were expanding. Indoor plumbing had become a necessity, no longer a luxury.