In the war to preserve our midcentury architectural heritage, another battle has been won. Contractors are now busy in south New Jersey restoring one of Louis Kahn’s early works, the Trenton Bath House. Completed in 1955 for the Trenton Jewish Community Center (JCC), the Bath House services an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool and day camp pavilions, also designed by Kahn. The structure is an early example of the classical geometries and powerful spatial relationships that Kahn would develop further in later work such as the Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the Salk Institute in California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas.
Overseen by Princeton firm Farewell Mills Gatsch Architect (FMG), the preservation project will return the building to its original condition and add a new snack bar and picnic area designed to be sympathetic to Kahn’s original master plan. Construction is expected to wrap up in mid-July, but the pool will open on Memorial Day, as it has done for the past 55 years.
The road to restoration has been long and full of potholes. In 1984, largely through the effort of architectural historians Susan Solomon and Lydia Soo, the Bath House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Time and poor upkeep had taken their toll on the facility, however, and in 1996 the JCC announced plans to demolish some of the adjacent day-camp pavilions. The announcement sparked international protest from groups who thought that all of Kahn’s work would be erased. In 1997, both Preservation Philadelphia and the New Jersey chapter of the AIA placed the Bath House on their endangered buildings lists. In addition, a delegation that included members of those organizations, Preservation New Jersey, and Keast & Hood—the project’s original structural engineers—as well as Michael Mills of FMG, approached JCC to talk about restoration options. “What we told them was that there were grants available,” said Mills.
JCC applied for and won a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust (NJHT) that provided funds to prepare a preservation plan. FMG drew up the plans in 2003, but before work could get underway another obstacle presented itself. In 2005, with its community in the area dwindling, JCC decided to move operations to West Windsor and sell the facility. Once again, the fate of the Bath House was up in the air. To the rescue came Mercer County. County executive Brian Hughes and planning director Donna Lewis, who had taken her children to the JCC, expressed their commitment to architecture by acquiring the site and transferring ownership to Ewing Township. The township renamed the facility the Ewing Senior and Community Center, and received a $750,000 matching grant from NJHT. Finally, FMG was poised to put its preservation plans into effect.
“The bath house is in pretty rough shape,” explained Mills. “Part of it has to do with the materials used and the design. Part of it has to do with what happened after Kahn was let go.” A Greek cross in plan, the Bath House consists of four concrete block pavilions topped by pyramidal wood-framed roofs that surround a central open-air atrium. While the roofs are in good shape and will only be resurfaced in the black tiles of the original design, the concrete block walls have not fared so well. In order to let light and air into the interior of the pavilions, the roofs do not shelter the walls, nor are they outfitted with gutters. Kahn wanted water to run over them freely, a poetic idea, but one damaging to the concrete, which is stained and coated with moss and mold. To combat future water damage, FMG is rebuilding the walls with a water-resistant coating and placing discreet gutters along key areas of the roofs.
The restoration will also replace several elements of the original design that have been removed over time, including a mural at the entrance, as well as a set of gates that will be fabricated from Kahn’s drawings. A circular, pebble-filled element that once existed at the center of the atrium will be recalled in the form of a circular, at-grade pebbled paving element. In addition, a snack bar that was glommed onto the side of the Bath House after Kahn’s services were relinquished will be removed and replaced at a more appropriate location by a new snack bar designed by FMG.