Nestled in the concrete landscape of Koreatown, the new Bimini Slough Ecology Park offers a green playground for children and adults -- at the site of a former steamy wonderland.
The neighborhood, mere minutes west of downtown, once was a soggy wetland. But for half a century, the 104-degree natural hot springs of the old Bimini Baths turned the area into a popular part of town that eventually offered a bowling alley, a nightclub featuring Benny Goodman and competitive dancing during the Depression.
Although the steamy water from the thermal springs remains, the baths went bankrupt in 1951. Now the park, with its tiny man-made creekbed and restored stands of native plants, serves as a reminder of the days when the waters were regarded as Los Angeles' "Fountain of Youth."
At the end of the 19th century, a 45-acre marsh cut a wide swath west of downtown. Long before Palm Springs boasted of spas, Los Angeles residents flocked to Bimini Baths, the largest bathhouse among many that were built in Southern California around natural hot springs.
The baths were at the city's western outskirts, alongside the Bimini Slough, where a ravine stretched across Vermont Avenue between 1st Street and Wilshire Boulevard. The cavernous public bath, also known as Bimini Hot Springs, offered huge indoor -- and later outdoor -- "plunges," the term applied to public swimming pools.
Bimini Baths was owned and operated by David W. Edwards, a former dentist and insurance company president from Minneapolis. He named it after Bimini, a Bahamian island where legend says the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth.
Edwards arrived in Los Angeles in 1895. Five years later, he founded the Conservative Life Insurance Co. He sold it in 1906, when it merged with San Francisco's Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., which had moved to Los Angeles after the great quake.
In the meantime, Edwards dabbled in real estate and oil and gas exploration. The baths were created by chance when drillers looking for oil struck water instead -- 104-degree, sodium-rich water -- 1,750 feet below the surface.
From the discovery sprang the Bimini Water Co., which would supply early residents with water until city mains were installed in 1915. Already, hot springs were flourishing in Arrowhead, East Los Angeles, La Puente, Encino, San Pedro and Santa Fe Springs. Bimini prospered immediately.
Almost as soon as the first pool was filled in January 1903, tourists and Angelenos alike began showing up in long-legged swimsuits to splash on Bimini Place.
The complex would eventually cover 14 acres between what is now 2nd Street and White House Place.
It was built and decorated at a cost of $200,000, attracting individuals with everything from arthritis to backaches. Glasses of the water were favored by red-eyed men who found its sodium bicarbonate and other minerals soothing for a hangover.
Others found the waters "magical," including the popular Connecticut author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who often wintered in Los Angeles. She was an old friend of Edwards, who had tried his hand at poetry. Wilcox was especially known for her often-quoted poem "Solitude," which begins, "Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone."
Like many, she was content to soak in the soothing waters. "I used to be a good diver," she told a reporter in 1903, "but now the water gets in my ears and impairs my hearing, so I guess I will not attempt to do any high diving."
A year after he opened the baths, Edwards built the Bimini Hotel across the street. The "healing waters" were pumped to the hotel, as well as sold in bottles to guests. Today, this two-story brick building serves as headquarters for the Mary Lind Foundation, and the old ballroom as a dining room for recovering alcoholics.
On Dec. 4, 1905, a fire destroyed the original bathhouse. Edwards built an enclosed bathhouse on the same spot. Designed by architect Thornton Fitzhugh in a Mission-revival motif with Italian marble floors, it was a bigger and grander version of the original, with 500 dressing rooms, a 1,000-seat balcony, a water stage and three indoor swimming pools.
In 1915, plans were unveiled for a "Bimini Electric Amusement Park," to be illuminated for nighttime recreation. It never got off the drawing board; Edwards died in 1917.
New owners built an outdoor pool, which opened in 1921. A huge gurgling fountain at its center drew even larger crowds in the summertime. But the fountain was blamed for several drownings and other serious accidents and later removed.
From its beginning, Bimini was more than just a fancy swimming hole; it was a civic nucleus for health-seekers and sports enthusiasts. It's where young Angelenos who could afford a trolley ride and 25 cents admission plunged into aquatic sports, winning state and national swimming and diving competitions.
The Bimini Polo Team played against Redondo and Venice, as well as teams from the nearby Athletic Club and YMCA.
In 1910, George Freeth, Redondo Beach's renowned Hawaiian surfer, lost a 75-yard swimming race to Frank Holborow. A year before, Freeth had accused Holborow of being a "professional" after Holborow applied for a job as a bathhouse lifeguard. He wasn't hired, but the accusation cost Holborow several championship competitions.
In 1912, Freeth himself was disqualified from the Summer Olympics because of his professional status as a paid lifeguard.
Bimini's waters claimed several lives and damaged others. Between 1907 and 1914, at least three youths drowned, including 13-year-old Ernest Cummings of Santa Ana and 14-year-old Robert Sidney Eley, son of Los Angeles Fire Chief Archibald J. Eley.
The most notorious case was in 1908, when the body of 15-year-old Victor Lamar was found at the bottom of a pool. His death launched a two-year investigation that ended in accusations against E.V. Reynolds, a Roman Catholic priest who had been visiting from Oklahoma.
The dead boy's parents sued the Bimini company, alleging that Reynolds had a record of "similar offenses" in Oklahoma and that the company had allowed a "moral degenerate" to molest their son. Victor had drowned, apparently after being hit on the head. The court ordered Bimini to pay the family $1,000.
But Bimini held mostly happy memories for locals. Olympic coaches trained and scouted swimmers there. As a Virgil Junior High School student, Doug Langbein remembers that a young, Los Angeles-born Esther Williams handed out towels at Bimini before becoming a swimming film star.
Still, Bimini was a product of its times. Retired teacher Jack Kunitomi, who grew up in the area, said Asians were barred from Bimini's pools because of a rumor that a Japanese American had touched "a Caucasian girl while they were playing in the deep end of the pool."
A neighborhood soon grew around the baths. A bowling alley and a movie house opened, as did a $15-million subdivision for 10,000 residents. The remodeled Palomar Ballroom one block south of the baths -- admission 40 cents for men, 25 cents for women and 15 cents for valet parking -- packed in crowds with acts such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser.
Music experts tend to agree that it was at the Palomar on Aug. 21, 1935, that Goodman and his orchestra began the era of swing music.
Exhausted Depression-era marathon dancers competed for money on the streets in front of Bimini Baths and the Rayfield Apartments, which are still there.
The neighborhood's chic began to wane in 1939, when the Palomar burned down. More important to the fate of Bimini Baths was the worldwide polio epidemic, which hit the United States in the 1940s.
Parents began pulling their children out of public pools for fear they would catch the disease.
Encumbered by lawsuits over drownings, Bimini Baths went bankrupt and drained its waters on Feb. 23, 1951. It was soon auctioned off for $125,000 but sat empty until 1956, when it was torn down.
For a time, a new building atop the hot springs housed the offices of the Daily Racing Form. Now the new park, the Mijoo Peace Church, an auto repair shop and the Bresee Community Center occupy the site.
Bimini Baths may be gone, but it isn't forgotten.
"We were young kids then, in need of companionship," Doug Langbein recalls. "We'd sit up on that center fountain and check out all the cute girls."