Public Baths
At the close of the 19th Century, progressive urban reformers, citing issues of public health and morality (particularly in New York City’s overcrowded tenements), urged municipal governments to establish free public bathing facilities. By that time, the City of New York was providing public saltwater baths in the Hudson and East rivers, but these were seasonal and the water in the rivers had become polluted. There were also a handful of public bath houses opened and operated by philanthropic societies that charged small entrance fees.

In 1895, the New York State Senate required that cities with 50,000 residents or more establish free bathing facilities. In 1902, the Art Commission began reviewing public bath sites for Manhattan and Brooklyn. The renderings and architectural drawings in this photo set are examples of these submissions. The early bath houses approved by the Commission included showers, bathtubs, and toilets. As bathtubs became more common in private homes, the need for public bath houses declined so later facilities included additional amenities like gymnasiums and swimming pools to attract crowds.

For additional information on public baths, see Christopher Gray’s New York Times article “When a Hot Shower Was a Frill” and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation reports for the East 54th Street and East 11th Street public baths.

For research inquiries, please visit the Public Design Commission's website and submit a research request form.
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