Rough Water for a Symbol From Our Past

No one knows exactly when the swimming pool became a symbol for Southern California. Like surfing, it probably just crept up on us.

But I do know the man who made it possible. Before World War II, you see, swimming pools existed only as playthings of the very rich. Fewer than 3,000 private pools had been built in all of California.

Phil Anthony changed that one day in 1949.

He was a kid recently returned from service in World War II, and found himself gazing at a construction crew building a retaining wall with a new technique. They were blowing concrete onto a steel mesh.

Anthony didn't know it was possible to apply concrete with a blower. He had spent several postwar years building swimming pools the hard way. By hand. Now, he experienced an epiphany.

What if he built pools the way these men were building a wall? Dig a hole, line it with mesh, and spray on the concrete with a pressurized hose? Would it be faster and cheaper?

Yes, it would. The process worked, and the future of the swimming pool was changed forever. Suddenly it became affordable to the thousands of new families arriving to fill up the tracts of South Gate, Van Nuys and Garden Grove.

And for 20 years it seemed like every one of those families wanted one. Anthony Pools and its competitors would build more than 400,000 pools in Southern California. That's more than exist on the continent of Europe.

Now, our affair with the swimming pool has hit rocky ground. The drought is on, our reservoirs are going down to the mud, and the swimming pool has become a target of the water cops.

An average pool evaporates 50 gallons of water per day, they say. That figure just happens to equal the total daily ration of water for each person in Marin County.

In San Francisco the filling or re-filling of pools has been outlawed for the duration. And the cruelest blow fell last week when Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson proposed that L.A. say nix to any new pools.

A new age, surely. And not all will regret the loss. Some will say good riddance. Some will say the pool symbolized our arrogance toward the desert that happens to be our home.

True enough, I guess. In recent years, certainly, the pool has come to serve as little more than an adornment, a landscape feature. You catch glimpses of these pools behind the fine houses and they always seem lonely.

But it was not always so. During the great age of the pools, in fact, the very allure of the swimming pool was its power to draw together families and friends.

In the 1950s the tracts of Orange County or the San Fernando Valley were new and raw places. The towns had no history, no community. Each family lived on a block populated by mysterious strangers.

Until the first pool came to the block. Suddenly, there was a place to gather, and people did. I have a friend from South Gate who says she basically grew up around her pool. It was simply the best place to be, she says, and maybe the only place where parents and kids could co-exist peacefully.

The family ate meals there in the summer, played cards, took naps. She was first kissed there, in a corner of the cabana, by a kid who lived two doors away.

It was an era when the back yard barbecue got invented. The era of louvered windows and aluminum awnings. And when the era faded, so did the pool.

Maybe the novelty wore off. For whatever reason, families don't grow up around pools anymore.

They have become as neglected and useless as living rooms. They are visited, if at all, by solitary individuals who do not describe their activity as swimming. They describe it as "doing laps."

So are they worth 50 gallons per day, these artifacts of our past? I am told by the pool industry that the total comes to a billion gallons annually for Southern California alone.

Of course, if we dig them up and plant grass, that would use water, too. It looks to me like we're trapped. The pools aren't going anywhere.

And what's a billion gallons, anyway? We'll flush a little less and make it up. It's not a total loss, after all. Our patches of blue water will still be here, to remind us of times when families, and neighbors, seemed to matter more than they do today.

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