“We did everything on the lake. We swam there. We took a lot of picnics down to the beach,” says Delores “Dee” Knight, who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1954. “There was a lot of ‘parking’ that went on there at night,” she adds with a blush.
For 23 years, families from across Dallas flocked to White Rock Lake’s bucolic banks, sunning themselves on the sandy beach or cooling off with a swim — Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more iconic scene.
It was kept as pristine as possible, intended as a water source for the city, not a swimming hole. But when Lake Lewisville was completed in 1929 as a larger reservoir, Dallas immediately made plans to turn its 1,015-acre lake into a recreational paradise. The Bath House opened in 1930, along with the bathing beach and boathouse. There on the eastern edge, a cement slab extended a hundred feet into the lake with 500 feet along the shore, making it the largest swimming pool in the city, according to “A History of Dallas Parks,” a manuscript kept in the city archives. Attendance often exceeded 100,000 per summer, even though sanitation always had been questionable. The water was chlorinated, first by boat and later through a pipeline. Historic images also show lake-goers wading in the spillway, under a pedestrian bridge that no longer exists, at the water’s southwest edge.
Despite periods of bleak economic conditions, families found affordable fun at the lake, which flourished with recreation from swimming to sailing to seaplanes.
The U.S. Army soon saw the value of the land, building its extensive Civilian Conservation Corps camps, which included two concession stands, camps, trails, picnic grounds and bathrooms, many of which are still in use today. Flush with funds from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Army Capt. Tom B. Martin oversaw construction beginning in July 1935, which brought an estimated 3,000 youth to live and work at the camp during its seven years in operation.
When America joined the allied forces of WWII in 1942, the camps became a training facility for the Army, before German prisoners of war were brought to reside there in 1944-45. After the war, Southern Methodist University bought the camp for student housing — imagine if those walls could talk. Their stories, of which few were recorded, ended when the basic wooden buildings were either sold off or torn down in the post-war boom years.
In addition to the Army, private businesses and clubs capitalized on the urban oasis, offering a wide swath of water activities, from cruises to waterskiing. Speed boating became popular and many prominent citizens built their own boat houses with a measly annual lease of $1, according to Sally Rodriguez’s book “Images of America: White Rock Lake.”
By 1952 the city determined that the boathouses unfairly limited access to the shared recreational resource and they were torn down.
When a severe drought hit Texas in summer 1953, White Rock’s water again was needed to support the city, and swimming was outlawed, a ban that has remained in place ever since.
Dee Knight can’t remember the reaction from friends upon news that their summertime playground would be shut down, “But it couldn’t have been good,” she notes. “It was the end of an era.”
Today, water sports are still enjoyed on the lake, albeit it in limited capacity — barges have been replaced by kayaks, speed boats by crew rowers.
Years before it closed, “the popularity of White Rock Beach began to decline. It was not a very dependable swimming place. In fact, it was just a recreation center. You know, go see and be seen and play in the sand,” Houston said. “Sanitation was always questioned.”
When White Rock beach closed, swimming’s modern era, which began in ’45, was just evolving in Dallas, progressing during a time of desegregation and accompanying unrest.
Swimming pools became a flashpoint for racial contention, notes professor Jeff Wiltse in his book, “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”
“Racist assumptions that black Americans were more likely to be infected with communicable illness” inflamed opposition to racial integration, Wiltse wrote.
Also, gender mixing at pools was relatively new, and white swimmers objected “to black men interacting with white women at such visually and physically intimate spaces,” he adds.
Across the country, stories emerged of young black men being beaten for attempting to swim at white pools.
“In my book, I have pictures of black Americans who lie still on the ground with bloody heads from being pummeled, just for trying to access a swimming pool,” Wiltse said in an NPR radio interview.
Houston and members of the Dallas park board understood the perils.
“We could see the time when racially mixed swimming would be with us,” Houston says. “We had the feeling that the very last thing that white people would tolerate would be mixed swimming. We thought it would be dangerous, you know, perhaps mob violence.”
In Dallas, no written rule of racial segregation at park property existed. Rather, segregation was socially enforced, according to the parks department’s centennial history. “Black citizens risked harassment or worse for using white facilities.”
Aside from White Rock and other lakes, a couple of large municipal pools served Dallas swimmers in the early 1900s.
The nearest pool for black residents of Northeast and East Dallas was Griggs Park, the city’s second black pool after Exline, located south of Southern Methodist University, almost to Downtown Dallas. Prior to 1924 it was called Hall Street Negro Park and was renamed for Rev. Allen Griggs, a freed slave who became a minister and newspaper publisher.
Imbalance in amenities grew increasingly evident over the years.
A 1944 Dallas Morning News article reported that the city offered 60 acres of park for its 60,000 black residents. In contrast, 5,000 acres were reserved for its 320,000 white citizens.
Compared to other Southern cities, Dallas managed to make a relatively peaceful transition to integrated pools, according to Slate, who co-wrote a paper with current parks department director Willis Winters about the desegregation of Dallas parks.
In their essay, “A means to a peaceful transition,” Slate and Winters credit Houston with leading “a quiet revolution that was a bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous time in the city’s relationship with its black citizens.”
Park board members Ray Hubbard and Julius Schepps worked closely with Houston, according to Slate, “within the confines of institutionalized segregation to encourage the peaceful transition to an integrated park system.”
Houston explained in his oral history how he and the board devised a new public swimming program while gradually integrating.
They developed a grid system of communities, both black and white, with a swimming pool at the middle of each. These smaller pools would progressively replace the existing large municipal swimming facilities.
The idea was directly tied to equal rights and desegregation.
“Houston surmised that providing more pools in more neighborhoods would distribute them more equitably throughout Dallas while reducing the chances of confrontation,” note Slate and Winters.
Houston began keeping close track of the racial makeup of Dallas neighborhoods, relying on employees who lived in transforming neighborhoods for information. He plotted data about racial trends and attitudes on a map hung in his office, which he used to make desegregation decisions.
“I never will forget the day [Schepps] called me and said, ‘L.B. are we ready to mix?’ By that time I think we had six or maybe nine pools. I told him my opinion that some could and others, doubtful,” Houston said in his oral history.
When it became clear a neighborhood was nearing a black-majority population, the local park was closed for a month and reopened as a “black” park. “By that time, most whites had moved on, and the park had been peacefully transitioned,” according to Houston’s oral history.
“This method was used successfully for both Lagow and Exline parks, which served South Dallas neighborhoods that had seen some of the most violent responses to integrated housing in Dallas’ history,” according to Slate and Winters. It was employed around the city, arguably resulting ultimately in equal amenities for black citizens.
Years later Houston would have to defend the parks department’s seeming silence on issues of integration.
A trade magazine called Amusement Business noted in 1961 that Dallas desegregated parks, golf courses and other recreational facilities but explicitly left public pools out of their agreement with civil rights leaders.
Houston defended his board’s methods, which, he pointed out, were supported by the Negro Chamber of Commerce and other local black groups.
“You were doing everything you could to prevent open rebellion. Because we were living on a powder keg. And when and if a revolt had ever been precipitated well, gosh, no telling where you would have ended up.”
Was it right to perpetuate socially segregated facilities? “No,” write Slate and Winters in their paper. “However, as agents of change from the inside they realized that whatever they could do from their positions would benefit a larger movement, and that anything that could prevent violent confrontation was better than the alternative.”
It’s clear that Dallas loved its pool system by the attendance record, which climbed to a high of 731,227 in 1957 according to park reports. Historic city records (which only stretch from 1921-58) show that the only year the city lost money on its pool system was in 1929 and 1930 following the stock market crash that plunged the country into the Great Depression, when families lost the extra income needed to play at the pool. Even in 1943, when the entire pool system was closed down on July 2 amidst a polio outbreak, the city still managed to sneak out a profit of $2,956.
By 1973, Dallas had 100 neighborhood pools, and every summer the Dallas Morning News celebrated them with a splash piece on pool culture featuring pictures of swim classes and families enjoying the cool waters. But by the 1980s, the pools dropped in popularity. Take Samuell-Grand, which at the time was newly renovated and began the decade in 1980 with an attendance high of 15,761 but slowly dropped to a low of 4,080 in 1989. Not surprisingly, the city began to look at its investments, especially considering some of the pools were more than 50 years old by then.
In 1984 the Dallas City Council announced plans to close six pools entirely, including Griggs Park (formerly Hall Street Negro Park) near East Dallas. Another 16 pools began operating on a reduced schedule, but Samuell-Grand and Tietze remained open.
Tietze nearly closed in 1994, when the city closed four of its 22 remaining full-sized pools. According to a Dallas Morning News article, it was on an early closure list because it had a leak that the city hoped to avoid paying to fix. But when the park department realized it was the fourth most utilized pool in the city, it determined there was enough revenue to be made to warrant repair.
Samuell-Grand, with its myriad recreational offerings and own financial support from the Samuell trust, mostly had avoided any threats of closure.
By 2000, the city was offering free days to entice more people into the pools. Then, it switched focuses entirely, investing heavily in “spraygrounds” instead. With contraptions that shoot, spray and dump water in all different sorts of ways, “spraygrounds” were cheaper to maintain because they don’t require lifeguards, and a 2003 voter-approved bond showed residents were in favor of the idea. Ridgewood Park opened in our neighborhood in 2006 after $446,000 in construction. It was such a success, the area was flooded with traffic; by 2008 it required “residents only” parking signs.
The pools again came under fire in 2012, when the city considered replacing neighborhood pools with smaller water facilities, citing the high cost of operating them. Tietze once again faced the threat of closure. Advocate columnist Angela Hunt encouraged residents to voice their concerns for their local pools and the city listened. Instead of shuttering, they decided to invest millions of dollars, transforming basic public pools into watery playgrounds with slides, shade structures and concession stands.
It was 1924 when the City of Dallas paid $16,797.94 for about five acres of land from Mr. Boyd Keith and Charles C. Huff, and proceeded to turn pasturelands into what was then known as Keith Park, according to city records. Six years later, the city spent $1,400 to build a junior swimming pool, which became an immediate hit with neighbors, leading to a spike in attendance at the park.
It wasn’t until 1934 when Tietze Park got the name we know today, inspired by W.R. Tietze, who championed the city’s recreation as superintendent of parks from 1896-1933. Under his watch, the city invested more into parks and pools than any other time in its history, earning him naming rights on one of East Dallas’ most popular parks.
In 1945 Tietze Park nearly doubled in size with the addition of four acres purchased for $28,105 from J.R. Noble, Charles Cobb and Howard Hicks. The city quickly made plans to build a full-sized pool, since swimmers were wary of the water conditions at White Rock Lake and nearby Fair Park Pool often was over-crowded. For a total of $41,556 ($507,477.61 in today’s dollars), the Tietze pool opened in 1946 and citywide pool attendance jumped from 323,227 to 484,476. (It should be noted that Grauwyler Pool in northwest Dallas also opened that year.)
Tietze has lasted longer than many of Dallas’ other swimming pools, largely due to its strong attendance level, which dropped to a low of 4,268 in 2004 before rebounding to its highest levels in recent decades with 14,292 swimmers in 2012.
With an influx of $2.6 million (see page 51), Tietze’s next chapter is just getting started.
In a succinct 21 words, Samuell’s will instructed the city to spend the $1.2 million gift (nearly $20 million in today’s dollars) on city parks and recreation. Samuell was known as a lover of the outdoors, who enjoyed walking his dogs across his robust piece of land, a legacy he wanted to see continue after his death.
Critics have complained that the city didn’t live up to Samuell’s request when it fought for the right to sell some plots of land rather than build parks. But the crown jewel of the Samuell bequest was Samuell-Grand, an 81-acre East Dallas park that included a baseball diamond, tennis courts and, as of August 1953, a pool.
It was the same year city officially closed White Rock Lake to swimmers; residents were eager for another place to cool off since Tietze was not large enough to handle the entire neighborhood. The year after Samuell-Grand opened, citywide pool attendance spiked to 611,253, up from 494,624 the year prior.
Since then, pool attendance has ebbed and flowed, but the numbers at Samuell-Grand always were strong enough to keep the swimming hole open, even as dozens of other city pools were shut down. And now, the pool is headed for the biggest upgrade in the neighborhood with a $5 million facelift.
In fact, in the 1920s, two attendants, a male and a female, were assigned to each pool, enforcing rules that allowed boys (ages 7 to 14) to swim from 4 to 5 p.m., while girls had to wait for 5 to 6 p.m., according to the 1921-23 Parks and Playground System Annual Report produced by the city.
In the late teens and early 1920s, the City of Dallas put a huge investment into its parks department, building 10 wading pools all over the city at a cost of about $3,200 each (or $40,000 in today’s dollars). What’s more, each of those 3.5-foot-deep pools had to be drained, cleaned and refilled with 35,000 gallons of water daily, creating extensive work for the city’s maintenance department.
But no one can say the citizens didn’t love and use the pools regularly. Wading pool attendance was listed at 9,333 at Exall Park from May to September in 1923, while Buckner drew 9,348, according to the report. That works out to more than 65 swimmers a day in the micro-pools. So popular were they that the city kept building them, and by 2000 had amassed a collection of 26 sprinkled across Dallas parks.
That was the year the Centers for Disease Control cracked down on wading pools, after a child in Atlanta died from contracting E. coli after swimming in one. While larger pools are built with filtration systems to keep them clean, wading pools run the risk of becoming breeding grounds for bacteria in the stagnant water, even though it was changed daily, health experts said. In February 2000, the park department announced plans to close all 26 of the city’s wading pools, sparking an immediate backlash.
People were protective of their petite park pools, and vocally opposed the idea of losing them. Park officials countered that the wading pools were all at least 50 years old and would require about $4 million to bring them up to new state codes aimed at preventing disease outbreaks. Former Mayor Laura Miller was the most vocal opponent of the plan, and went about finding her own funding stream to protect four of the wading pools, specifically Arcadia Park in her Oak Cliff district. Despite the effort, the wading pools eventually closed.
The City of Dallas has long tried to compete with the private sector in offering refreshing recreation. In the 1920-50s, it built dozens of pools, making the cool waters that were once only accessible to the wealthy something attainable for an average family. In the 2000s, it built spraygrounds that offer a more water park-inspired experience than a traditional public pool. Now, it has set its sights on aquatic centers.
Part neighborhood pool that can offer the traditional swimming lessons and camps; part water park with slides and other fun features, the new designs are hoping to capture families looking for all the bells and whistles while also filling a basic community need. The city has plenty of money to sink into the effort, thanks to the sale of Elgin B. Robertson Park Lake Ray Hubbard, which is funding most of the $52.8 million makeover.
In our neighborhood, that includes a $2.6 million facelift for Tietze Park and a $5 million overhaul of Samuell-Grand.
Samuell-Grand will soon be a haven from the heat, with a lazy river, children’s pool and a waterslide. Expect an eight-lane lap pool for swim lessons as well as a shade structure and a 4,000-square-foot bathhouse with a concession stand. City officials expect it will draw 45,000 swimmers a year, who will each pay an admission fee of $7-$9 (exact price to be decided). Plans calls for the groundbreaking on the new water playground to take place in May 2017, with construction to be completed in one year.
Final designs are still being developed by Kimley-Horn and Associates and Quimby McCoy Preservation Architecture, but plans for Tiezte Park’s pool revealed in March show a slightly larger pool with 3-4 swimming lanes that range from 3.5-6-feet deep, and also a 16-inch tube slide. The little swimmers would get a zero-entry pool and families could hang out under the 20-by-30-foot shade structure. The city is doing everything possible to preserve but enhance the original infrastructure, including the 1934 stone pavilion that abuts the current pool.
The final design is expected by the end of the year, after the city has had ample time to hear from residents about what they’d like to see in their pool plans. The designers hope to begin construction in May 2017 before the newly refurbished Tietze Neighborhood Family Aquatic Center opens in May 2019. At that time, the city predicts admission will remain reasonable at $3-$5.
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