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Berekeley Daily Planet

Posted on August 17, 2010

Festivities Greet Restored Richmond Plunge

By Steven Finacom

The Richmond Plunge—one of the East Bay’s historic indoor swimming facilities—was formally reopened Saturday, August 14, 2010 with speeches by dignitaries and community leaders and eager enthusiasm from a large crowd that had come both to celebrate and to swim. 

“This is a great day, a great event," Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay told the crowd. 

“This is amazing," said Elinor Strauss, one of the volunteer leaders of the Richmond Plunge Trust that worked for several years to raise public and private funds for the complete renovation of the building. “I want to start off with having all of you congratulate yourselves,” she told the crowd. “You guys were terrific, and this is what you get for it.” 

The stately eighty-four year-old Plunge stands in Point Richmond, on a level plot of land at the base of a ridge, adjacent to automobile and train tunnels that lead out to Brickyard Landing and the Richmond shoreline. 

It had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s and needed major upgrades including a seismic retrofit. The building was shuttered in 2001, while both municipal leaders and community members worked to find funds to repair and reopen it. 

The Richmond Plunge Trust was formed as a focus for fundraising and restoration planning and ultimately attracted hundreds of donors and supporters. 

Money was painstakingly secured from private gifts, from government grants, and from special causes such as a $75,000 “Partners in Preservation” grant from American Express that was awarded after a public beauty contest, with Plunge supporters voting on-line. The renovation cost some $7.5 million. 

Well over 500 people (by my estimate) crowded the newly re-landscaped grounds in front of the building and the adjacent sidewalks to hear several speakers praise the renovation project before the building was reopened. 

It was an eclectic crowd, racially and ethnically diverse, and ranging in age from one senior who had been at the Plunge on its opening day in 1926 to little kids with swimsuits and towels, impatiently awaiting the completion of the speeches and the opportunity to get inside and swim. 

Strauss praised Lindsay’s involvement and support. “We got a city manager who really ‘got’ swimming. Not many of them do.” 

The Plunge Trust Board “was tenacious, scrappy, opinionated, and always faithful to the cause,” Strauss said. 

Lindsay also congratulated the Richmond City Council for support of the project. 

“Where there’s a significant civic project such as this, there’s a lot of political decision making and political courage that goes into it”, he said. “You really do have to have that political courage, political leadership. And Richmond does have that on its City Council.” 

“We’ve waited so long for this big day, and what a day it is!” Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said, calling the Plunge “this well loved, grand place.” “This is a magical place. So many dreams have come true at the Plunge.” 

She presented a proclamation to honor Ellie Strauss and her husband Bob Strauss, whom she called “the key people behind this project.” 

Other councilmembers spoke. One noted that her grandmother was at the Plunge on opening day in 1926, and she, in turn, was now present with her grandchild at the re-opening. 

“We’ll continue to make Richmond a model for the Bay Area and the world,” said Councilmember Nathaniel Bates. “Bless you, and let’s go for a swim!” 

“It’s a symbol of what Richmond is when everyone helps”, said Councilmember Ludmyrna Lopez. “We can, yes we can, that’s our new model in Richmond. If our heart and our time isn’t in it, we can’t make anything happen.” 

“This is an example of a perfect public/private partnership…I hope it is one that can be copied many times,” said Trust leader and former Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin. 

“This building has contributions in it from people far and wide…Never give up,” she concluded. 

“It’s a legacy project,” Berkeley-based project architect Todd Jersey told the crowd during the dedication. “The systems are designed to last 50 years.” 

“This is the healthiest and greenest pool in the country,” he added. The water is cleaned by ultraviolet light, rather than chlorine. A solar heating system warms the water, and photovoltaic panels on the roof produce electricity. “About 50% of our power generation is from solar technology.” 

“This is a fresh air pool”, he added, noting there are 200 operable windows, rather than a mechanical system, to dehumidify and circulate air. Efficient space heaters strategically positioned above the pool edges will warm the zones where people stand, rather than trying to raise the temperature of the entire interior. 

Jersey named and praised a long list of project workers, subcontractors, and suppliers—including Berkeley’s Sun Light and Power—who had participated in the renovation. Some made in-kind labor and materials donations to the project totaling half a million dollars. 

“The project does really sell itself,”Jersey said. “After people were introduced to it, it was just a natural.” 

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin re-emphasized the green theme. “This is a green tribute to our sustainable direction in Richmond,” she said, to applause from the crowd. “We’re becoming #1 in the Bay Area as a green city.” 

She also praised historic preservation. “It’s such a great, great tribune to Richmond and the people of Richmond. That’s what we’re here to celebrate today.” 

City Manager Lindsay also repeatedly returned to historic preservation as a positive theme in his remarks. He quoted one expert:“At its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.” 

“Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact,” he added, quoting John Kenneth Galbraith. 

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner also spoke, commending what she called “such an expression of incredible community, public sector, private sector partnership.” She said “when I was in college I learned how to flip a kayak in this Plunge and have missed it ever since.” 

A proclamation from State Senator Loni Hancock was read, noting the importance of the restoration project as “a commitment to bring together families and communities for generations to come.” 

The event began with bagpipes, and Eliza O’Malley led the crowd in singing “Oh when the swimmers go plunging in…” re-written by Plunge booster David Vincent to the tune of “Oh, when the Saints….” 

After the ceremony was finished, the crowd poured into the building. There was a viewing period when visitors could wander through all parts of the building, including the locker rooms with recycled glass shower stalls, and custom-made aquatic mosaics. 

Then the pool area was cleared for the beginning of the first official swim period, while those not swimming could watch from the balcony. 

June Albonico made the first dive into the pool. She taught swimming there for more than four decades. A painting of her, in blue one-piece swimsuit, was included in the mural at the end of the pool room. 

Others quickly plunged in, from toddlers with their parents in the shallow end to teenagers splashing about mid-way, and adult lap swimmers quartering the deep end. Within ½ of hour of the swim start there were nearly 100 people in the pool itself and a line out the door of those waiting to swim. 

The Plunge—officially the Richmond Municipal Natatorium—opened in 1926. For decades swimmers came from all over the east side of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties—and even across the Bay, from Marin—to use the grand indoor pool. 

Some swimming facilities in the Bay Area were bigger—particularly the privately-built, Victorian era, Sutro Baths in San Francisco—and other indoor municipal pools still survive, including the Hayward Plunge (opened in 1936), but the Richmond Plunge is a special survivor from an era when cities across the country invested heavily in public recreational facilities and programs, particularly for children. 

The Plunge stands at the edge of Point Richmond’s small business district, behind a columned neoclassical façade decorated with small, gilded, seahorses. 

The two-story north front of the building contains the main entrance and check in area, locker and shower rooms, with the spacious pool area beyond. The pool extends 160 feet and is 60 feet wide, replacing a different pool arrangement with separate children’s swimming areas. A popular water spouting “mushroom” that once stood in one of the children’s pools was relocated and installed outside the building as a fountain. 

White-painted metal trusses and a vaulted wooden roof topped by a light monitor span the enormous pool. The interior—aside from the water—reminded me of the large multipurpose piers at Fort Mason in San Francisco. 

A “U” shaped mezzanine gallery rings three sides of the pool and provides a spectator area. 

At the far, south, end the wall is covered with a huge mural by John Wehrle of the Richmond shoreline along the Bay, complete with lawns, ponds, and egrets. 

The Plunge is operated by the Richmond Recreation Department. It offers recreational swimming, lap swimming, and swimming and water fitness classes, as well as instruction in canoe and kayak handling. 

Non-Richmond residents can swim for $6 / adult, $4 / child. 

--For more information, see: 

Save the Richmond Plunge Trust website: 

Richmond Recreation aquatics program website: 

Todd Jersey Architecture: 

John Wehrle, muralist: 

And an article by Richard Brenneman about the struggle to renovate the Plunge in the March 28, 2006 Planet.

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