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Project at a Glance

Location:
Ewing, New Jersey
Date:
1954-1959
Architect:
Louis I. Kahn
Advocacy Status:
Safe
The world discovered me after I designed the Richards Medical Building, but I discovered myself after designing that little concrete block bath house in Trenton.
— Louis I. Kahn



 

The Trenton Bath House is a seed in Kahn’s portfolio. It is considered by historians, and was by Kahn himself, to be the precedent for his more well-known designs of the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA and the Kimball Art Gallery in Fort Worth, TX. The Bath House’s own origins are partly found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, which Kahn visited as a fellow at the American Academy, and some say even reflect Kahn’s ideas of secular Judaism. After decades of neglect this great structure is finally being restored to its original condition.

The Bath House was commissioned by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of the Delaware Valley as part of a complex of buildings that would serve as a social center for the Jewish community of southern New Jersey. The complex consisted of the Bath House (a structure for pool changing rooms, clothing storage and pool equipment), a pool, a day camp and a main community center building. Although Kahn made a design proposal for the site and all its buildings, in the end he was only commissioned to do the Bath House, pool and Day Camp structures—excluding the landscaping and the main building. These were both significant losses as Kahn considered landscape elements equivalent to buildings and because he envisioned the site as a group of interrelated buildings that did not work by themselves. Unfortunately, after several years of struggle on the design of the main building the clients grew tired of Kahn and replaced him with the firm Kelly and Gruzen. The women of the JCC designed and planted the landscaping and to Kahn’s disgust the JCC erected snack bar against one of his structures.

The Bath House design is a pavilion in the shape of a Greek cross composed of four squares. Kahn considered each square volume a room even though none of the rooms were completely enclosed. On June 7, 1955 Kahn made an entry in his notebook on a page titled the “Palladian Plan” where he began talking about the modernist principle of the open plan:

“I have discovered what everyone else has found[,] that a bay system is a room system. A room is defined by space defined by the way it is made. By the way it gets a roof or ceiling and has its walls separate it from the rest of the spaces. In a system of bays not intended as rooms [,] the rooms however do still exist [,] though it may not have the walls to define it.” (Susan Solomon, Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, p. 90.)

The main programmatic elements of the building are the basket room, which is for clothing storage; the men’s and women’s changing rooms with toilet rooms and showers; a center atrium space with a circular wading pool open to the sky and a “porch” from which stairs lead to the elevated pool. Kahn’s parallel between service and served, support and living, is very clear is this building and became more developed in later projects. Support spaces like toilet rooms, storage, circulation and an office are all magically contained in the massive columns that support the delicate, almost floating pyramidal roofs. Kahn’s use of simple geometrical forms (square, circle and triangle) provided the perfect backdrop for the frenzied activity of the Center as well as sources for the crisp swaths of natural light that cut through the spaces. The use of geometric forms along with Kahn’s natural lighting strategy further point toward the Roman influence in the project.

Kahn and his collaborator/friend Anne Tyng envisioned the Bath House as a waterlogged ruin. Instead of having gutters to transport rainwater away from the building they wanted the run-off to wash down the sides of the concrete block walls like a waterfall. Unfortunately, this idea did not bode well for the structural health of the building and has resulted in extensive moss growth on the walls and failing mortar. In addition, the wood frame and concrete plank roofs are in a precarious condition and some have had to be removed because they had become dangerously weakened.

The Bath House site was listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. However, this recognition did not provide financing to repair the Bath House—only some protection from demolition. In 1997, as the situation became critical, Preservation New Jersey and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects put the Bath House on their endangered buildings lists. Subsequently, in 2001, the JCC received a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to commission a preservation plan, after which it hired Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects in Princeton, NJ to design and carry out the plan. In 2005, the JCC surprisingly decided to move to West Windsor, NJ. The pending abandonment prompted Mercer Country to use funds from the Open Space Preservation Trust to buy the site from the JCC. After protecting the site with conservation easements the county transferred ownership to the Ewing Township. The Township opened the pool to the public in 2007 under a pre-closing agreement with the JCC and in 2008 it reopened the Day Camp. In 2009, Ewing Township received a matching grant of $750,000 from the New Jersey Historic Trust for the restoration of the Bath House and Day Camp pavilions. Restoration work at what is now the Ewing Senior and Community Center commenced in summer of 2009 to much excitement.

—Julia Stanat, December 2009

July 2010 update
Restoration of the Bath Houses and Day Camp structures is nearing completion.