Remembering When ... La Jolla Bathhouse Through the Years

Aug. 28, 2017 marked the 112th anniversary of a fire that took out the La Jolla Bathhouse, considered a treasured resource at La Jolla Cove in the late 1800s. With the end of summer tourist season in sight, La Jolla Light decided to look back on the facility that once was, the fire that took it out, the newer (not necessarily improved) replacement, and the community effort that had it removed.

According to “By the Beautiful Sea: A photographic history of summers in La Jolla 1870-1930” (the accompanying material to a 2008 La Jolla Historical Society exhibition), bathhouses were a common phenomenon of beach towns in the late 19th century.

“Bathhouses were built to accommodate growing numbers of beach-goers,” an excerpt from the booklet reads. “Besides lockers and changing rooms, they usually included recreational facilities such as dancing pavilions, tea rooms and restaurants. La Jolla’s beaches — specifically La Jolla Cove — were the most popular destination of any in the San Diego area, frequently attracting thousands of visitors on a single day.”

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten added, “This was something people were presumably doing up and down the coast, and La Jollans were interested in a healthy lifestyle, so La Jolla was a suitable place and the bathhouse was likely seen as a good thing.”

The La Jolla Bathhouse, designed by famed architect Irving Gill, opened in 1894 and offered coffee and cold drinks to visitors who came to La Jolla from San Diego by rail for a day at the beach. “Images of America: La Jolla,” by Olten, Heather Kuhn and the La Jolla Historical Society, reports that the Bathouse was remodeled 10 years after it opened to provide extended facilities and a more “picturesque profile.”

An excerpt from the book reveals: “After the remodel, a new roof and coat of paint improved the bathhouse in 1904. Sturdy wooden stairs allowed access to La Jolla Cove beach, and swings were erected for further recreation. A small group of boats awaited those who wished to row offshore.”

On Aug. 28, 1905, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the original bathhouse while the manager was cooking. The cause was later determined to be a faulty gas lamp. The facility burned to the ground within 30 minutes. The loss of the original bathhouse made way for a larger, more expansive facility to be built.

In March 1906, the new bathhouse — considered a lively spot for dancing and dining, similar to facilities found on New York’s Coney Island — opened. According to “Images of America,” it was considered “much larger and imposing for its time and built on the same site. It contained an auditorium, a swimming pool that was later floored and turned into a dance hall, and restaurant overlooking The Cove. The only facility at the time available for social life and recreation, it became the pride of the small La Jolla Community. … It offered 180 dressing rooms and lockers.”

But the proud sentiment didn’t last long.

In 1922, the commercial atmosphere and lack of sanitary conditions began to bother citizens, and the beach-facing side of the bathhouse was covered in advertisements. “I think the ads played some part, but according to our records, the reason stated (that the community bgan to dislike it) is that is ‘most unsanitary and an eyesore,’ ” said Olten. “La Jolla has always had a natural landscape and aesthetic perspective — they didn’t want another Coney Island. So when the proprietors tried to renew the lease, meetings were held and there was community opposition — it kind of sounds like today — and the Park Board refused to renew the lease.”

In January 1924, the La Jolla Civic League held a meeting to discuss the bathhouse and by March 1925, it was torn down with no plans for constructing another.