Bathing beauty

Bathing beauty

The renovation of an architectural landmark kindles fond memories of Trenton’s Jewish community

Opening day of the Trenton Bath House, July 1955. Photo courtesy Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Opening day of the Trenton Bath House, July 1955. Photo courtesy Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

As Paula Deitz strolled through the newly restored Trenton Bath House in Ewing recently, fond memories of her childhood at the JCC of the Delaware Valley washed over her.

Her mother Rosalie was on the JCC building committee that hired the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn for the project. She remembers the grand opening of the bathhouse in 1955, and her Sweet 16 summer when she served as camp counselor there.

“Standing here on a hot summer day, it’s as if no time has passed,” said Deitz as she surveyed the bathhouse from beneath the shade of her hat. “I will always remember my first day as a counselor. The spaces created by Kahn were so open and expansive. When the girls came in to change, they ran around in circles, enjoying such freedom of space.”

Deitz, editor of The Hudson Review literary magazine, joined about 40 journalists, architects, and historians at a July 28 media tour of the bathhouse.

The group gathered to commemorate the preservation of this mid-century historic landmark, which stood neglected for years and faced potential demolition when the JCC put the land up for sale in 2005.

Mercer County and Ewing Township came to the rescue, jointly acquiring the site in 2006, and embarking on a restoration effort with the Princeton firm Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects. Now called the Ewing Senior and Community Center, the 38-acre site includes an outdoor swimming pool and four pavilions surrounding an open-air atrium, all designed by Kahn.

The bathhouse has become a touchstone for architecture aficionados. Architects from as far away as Japan have made pilgrimages to the site; books and articles have been written about it. Architects Eli and Risa Goldstein of South Orange served guests a wedding cake replica of the bathhouse at their 1985 wedding.

It’s the Kahn mystique that draws visitors to the site. But for many, it’s a “very difficult building to understand,” said Susan G. Solomon of Princeton, author of Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center (Princeton Architectural Press). “To understand this sort of building you have to understand the glass and steel skyscrapers of the 1950s. Those buildings are light and airy but they lack a sort of gravitas, a sense of being eternal. Kahn wanted to capture light, airy spaciousness on his own terms.”

Kahn was recruited to the JCC project by charismatic Trenton attorney Harvey Saaz, who understood the architect’s progressive work. When Saaz died, Kahn was let go because very few JCC board members appreciated his architectural style, Solomon said. As the Jewish community dispersed to other areas, the JCC eventually moved to West Windsor. Kahn died in 1974.

During a slideshow presentation at the July 28 tour, Michael Mills, preservation partner from Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects, spoke about the restoration, and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and Mercer County Planning Director Donna Lewis highlighted its rich history.

Inda Sechzer of Maplewood, who trained as an architect, feels a special connection with Kahn; the laboratory where her mother worked as a scientist was in the Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which was designed by Kahn.

“The community needs to understand these are important icons at the forefront of design at the time. The bathhouse is part of the history of the American Jewish community,” Sechzer said.

Ron Schwartz of Ewing witnessed the construction of the bathhouse, as well as its deterioration and rebirth. Currently director of the day camp that operates on the site, Schwartz was a camper and member of the JCC as well as a longtime employee in youth and sports programming.

“I remember my father took my brother and me to the grand opening. On one hand, it was exciting to be part of such a rich history. On the other hand, it was just a place where I grew up,” Schwartz said. “I’m very glad the township put the effort into restoring it. It represents my youth.”

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