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It's where the water's always fine

Welcome to Lincoln Park Pool, a friendly Albany landmark for seven decades

By KRISTI L. GUSTAFSON, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, July 1, 2001
When Marion Cure first stepped into the blue disc that is Lincoln Park Pool in 1931, she didn't know how to swim.

By the end of the summer -- the pool's first season -- "I was able to pick my feet up and doggy-paddle all the way across the pool,'' said the Albany resident, now 79 years old.

On Wednesday, Lincoln Park Pool will celebrate its 70th birthday in much the same way it marked its first day and thousands of summer days in between. Weather permitting, adults and children will arrange themselves on the grassy border and step gingerly into the still-cool water.

Through the Depression, the pool was an almost daily destination for Cure and her friends, who would hike down the steep slope from Delaware Avenue. "As long as the weather was nice, we'd be there,'' she said.

If they could stay for more than a quick dip, they lounged on the sandy verge or cooled off in the gradual slope of the water. Back then, lifeguards in black one-piece bathing suits patrolled in rowboats. Every few summers, polio scares would thin the crowd, and Cure's mother would discourage her from going. The family doctor, she recalls, assured them it was safe.

The rich may have gone off to summer homes or the ocean; the masses went to Lincoln Park. After graduating from Albany High School in '39, many of Cure's classmates headed to house parties. "But for us,'' she recalled, "it was out of the graduation outfits and into our swimsuits.''

The unique design of the 300-foot-wide pool -- like a giant's contact lens -- attracts people from all around the Capital Region, and makes it one of the handful of civic spaces where divisions seem to disappear.

"It brings people together,'' said John D'Antonio, assistant commissioner of Albany's Youth and Recreation Department. "Every time I go down there, I see everyone from toddlers to senior citizens, and people of every race.''

Before the pool was built, the best swimming in downtown Albany was just a few hundred feet away, near the present site of the Montessori Magnet School, in a freshwater hole called Rocky Ledge. (Fresh springs still flow beneath the park's surface.)

"Teenage boys were daredevils -- jumping off the rocks and swimming in the waters below,'' said Albany city historian Virginia Bowers. The pool was built to provide a safer alternative, and to fit into a long-standing plan to make Lincoln Park the city's athletic hub.

The pool and bathhouse were constructed under the administration of Mayor John Boyd Thacher II. They were completed in less than a year by the firm of Feeney & Sheehan -- a name that conjures up the old days of Albany's Irish-American ascendancy -- at a cost of $53,820.55.

The pool's designers did their best to re-create the feel of a coastal beach in the middle of an inland city, and even trucked in genuine Atlantic beach sand to complete the illusion. (Health code and filtration regulations forced the city to replace the sand with grass in the 1960s, according to pool supervisor Andy Csiza.)

Cure remembers the crowd as being predominantly white, an impression borne out in photos from the '30s, '40s and '50s. "It used to be that the colored people stayed in the right corner near the bathhouse,'' she said. "I don't remember hearing that it was compulsory, but it was one of those things that seemed to happen.''

While the pool has remained remarkably unchanged since 1931, the city surrounding it has been transformed. Many of the old row houses still border the park, but the low line of homes between it and the Hudson has been replaced by the apartment buildings of Albany's South End; uphill from the pool, the State Museum and the Empire State Plaza give evidence of successive generations of city builders.

The crowd at the pool has changed as well. Today, a blend of white, African-American and Hispanic families flock to the water's edge on steamy days.

Since the early '60s, Mars Hill has been among them. "I still make it down to the pool just about every evening,'' said the 78-year-old author and longtime Albany resident. "I take a quick dip, get in my laps and come out.''

Hill calls the pool "a part of three generations of my family.'' Hill's son Joffrey was a lifeguard when he was a teenager; today, Joffrey lives in New Jersey, but his daughters Imani, 10, and Kieara Leola, 3, spend the summer with their grandfather.

"I still consider the pool a beautiful place,'' Hill said. "It's like my own beach within the city.''

In the past few decades, the pool became less beautiful. The bathhouse, in particular, fell into disrepair; from 1990 to 1997, Hill's laps were shortened when half of the pool was closed to the public. "There wasn't enough money in the city's budget to pay all the lifeguards they would have needed,'' D'Antonio said.

Last year, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings -- who learned to swim at the pool -- raised the salaries for lifeguards. This year, the pool got a much-needed new filtration system, and the bathhouse received a $3 million face lift that's still in its final stages.

City officials say much more needs to be done.

"Band-Aids have basically been holding the pool together for the past 20 years,'' said Csiza, the pool supervisor. "Eventually, surgery is necessary.''

Despite discussions last summer, Jennings insists there are no plans to demolish the pool this year.

"We're going to monitor activity for the next few years,'' Jennings said. "Then we'll decide whether to maintain (the pool) as it is or create a brand-new swimming facility.''

The pool's design, while unique and charming, makes it a challenging property to maintain.

"We can't even get a vacuum in there,'' Csiza said. "The pool gets thoroughly cleaned once a year, and that's at the end of the season.''

Marian Cure's lifeguards in rowboats are long gone. Today, the 18 guards perch on raised chairs or patrol the shallows on foot, keeping an eye on the 1,000 people who use the pool on an average summer day. Kids cluster on the platform at the pool's 7-foot-deep center, although diving hasn't been allowed for years. They run through the chlorine-enhanced jets of water shooting up from spigots along the pool's edge.

Like Marion Cure and Jerry Jennings, Albany's children still learn to swim at Lincoln Park Pool. Imani Hill, who got help from the Girls and Boys Club of Albany, prizes the certificate she got for completing her lessons.

This summer, she and her grandfather are teaching Kieara Leola how to swim.

Imani was 8 years old when she first completed the 300-foot transit across Lincoln Park Pool -- almost the same age as Cure when she mastered the water 70 years ago.

"Now,'' Imani said, "I go back and forth all the time.''