With its elegant posts and art-deco design, the Bath House is easily the most iconic building at White Rock Lake. Old timers will tell you about swimming there to escape the summer sun, back when admission was a quarter (15-cents for children). Today’s youth use the space to draw, paint and build sculptures out of twigs during its packed art camps that take place every summer.
Aside from the few decades it was left fallow, the building has been a community gathering space of one sort or another since it first opened in 1930. In its recent history, it has been neighbors who consistently breathed new life into the Bath House. It was neighborhood fundraising that transformed the building into a cultural center in 1981. The community rallied again in 2004 to overhaul an old storage closet into White Rock Lake Museum, a celebration of the lake’s textured history. When the city lacked the funds to maintain the center’s staff, the neighbors responded by forming the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center in 2008 to collect donations and save a job.
Its value as the sole public building on the lake cannot be overstated. Neighbors have a sense of ownership over the beloved space after their years of support, which can conflict with the city’s direct ownership of the bath house. As was the case this February, when the Office of Cultural Affairs sent an eviction notice to the community-built museum that has occupied about 300 square feet of the bath house for the past 13 years. The space would be better used to showcase emerging artists, OCA said. It set off a heated reaction, leading to a he-said, she-said debate between the city and the museum board.
It sparked the question: As one of just four cultural centers in the city, and the only open building at the lake, what is the best use for the Bath House? And who should have a say?
Building the Bath House
It was mayor J. Waddy Tate who pushed forward the vision of a sandy beach at White Rock Lake where families could host picnics and take a dip in the cool water. It was the 1920s and the lake was becoming a recreational paradise that would eventually include boats, barges, sea planes and beaches. All of that activity needed a hub, a place with proper facilities where families could park and change clothes.
Tate called for plans to build the $48,100 Municipal Bath House, an ambitious project that would bring electricity and running water to the eastern bank of the lake for the first time. Carsey and Linske Architects were behind the pioneering example of art-deco design in the Southwest. With its sweeping deck and direct access to the recently engineered beach, the Bath House was a hit from the day it opened on Aug. 9, 1930. For 23 summers, it was a place where memories were made in our neighborhood. Almost any student who attended Woodrow Wilson High School in that era will tell you about spending weekends on the shore, and the honest ones will tell you it’s where all the teens went to make out. By 1953, the drought-ravaged state needed clean water more than it needed bathing beaches, and the boats and swimmers were banned. The lake would supplement the city’s drinking water supply.
The Bath House doors were locked and there it sat, collecting dust, for decades.
In 1978, the neighbors wanted something more for the historic building. With the city’s blessing, they gathered support from the community in the form of donations and volunteers, who transformed the facility from a beach-side hub to a place where art would thrive. Gallery spaces and a 116-seat theater replaced the changing rooms and concessions area when the Bath House Cultural Center officially opened on Aug. 22, 1981. The building would showcase thousands of artists over the next three decades and serve as the birthplace for beloved neighborhood traditions like Diá de los Muertos/Day of the Dead and the Festival of Independent Theater.
When the city invested in cultural centers in the 1980s, it was part of a growing community-driven movement to support the arts in all their forms. By 1989 the interest was so strong, the city created the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA), which branched off of the Park and Recreation Department with the express purpose of building partnerships with and support for artists in Dallas.
“Our priority is theater and arts,” says Jennifer Scripps, director of the OCA and herself a lake resident.
Today, her department oversees 23 centers including neighborhood hubs like the Bath House and the Latino Cultural Center, along with major sites like the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and the Hall of State at Fair Park. In all, OCA has 1.5-million-square-feet of cultural space, although most of that is operated by partners. OCA only manages functions at nine of those centers, including the Bath House.
Art has been the focus at the Bath House since it became a cultural center, where today more than 600 pieces of art are shown in an average year, and hundreds of artists have the chance to be discovered.
“The solo show for an emerging artist is huge,” Scripps says, adding that many who apply for shows have nowhere else to display their work. “That’s what keeps them from creating art full-time. I hear that from artists all the time and it is heartbreaking.”
While preference is given to local creatives, artists from as far away as Paris have shown their work in the Bath House. And its black box theater has fostered the premieres of award-winning shows such as “Wedding Belles,” which was licensed by the famed Samuel French, Inc. in New York City. Scripps says OCA is not only dedicated “to helping artists make a living,” it also is fulfilling the desires of the community.
“What we are hearing again and again is that people want more places for art,” she says.
OCA officials agree it is the department’s duty to respond to the needs and wants of the residents whose tax dollars fund much of the department’s operations.
“The Bath House, like the OCA, has evolved to be reflective of the community,” says David Fisher, assistant director of OCA, who used to serve as manager of the Bath House.
Such was the case when a group of neighbors wanted to celebrate the lake’s history by building a museum in an under utilized storage closet next to the theater. The city was supportive of the efforts, as long as they were self-funded. Led by boardmembers Kurt Kretsinger, Jeannie Terilli, Michael Jung and Rick Wamre (Advocate Media president), it took around $100,000 in cash donations and another $100,000 in sweat-equity labor to build White Rock Lake Museum, which opened in 2004. It told the story of the lake, from its history with German POWs during WWII to the Miss White Rock contests of the 1950s. It also highlighted the lake’s environmental significance, including the local wildlife that make their home there.
“We wanted to build something that honored the lake,” Kretsinger says. “It’s a huge part of our neighborhood’s culture.”
After installation, the museum displays sat, largely untouched, for 13 years. OCA staff said the text-heavy panels did not engage readers in the digital era, and on the whole, the museum failed to draw visitors.
“Nobody comes here and says ‘Where is the museum?’ ” Bath House manager Marty Van Kleeck says of the more than 30,000 annual visitors, according to theater ticket sales and self-reported event attendance. “People stumbled in there on their way to see the arts.”
With more interest from artists than the OCA could possibly meet, the staff decided the museum space would be better used as a third gallery. In February, they sent the museum a 60-day eviction notice.
“After more than a decade, we feel the museum has lived its useful life,” Fisher wrote in an email to the museum board. “In addition, the number one resource we hear that is needed by the cultural community is more gallery space for emerging artists. Hence, we are requesting that you remove the museum panels so that we can replace them with an emerging artist space. This helps the Bath House and Office of Cultural Affairs further their missions of supporting the arts and artists in Dallas.”
It did not go over well.
The museum board, passionate about preserving history, took the issue to the White Rock Lake Task Force, a board with no direct power over the Bath House but a lot of influence over lake politics. It became a debate about the meaning of culture and who should define it.
“It’s a cultural center; it is not the Bath House art center,” said historian Dr. Steve Butler, whose book on White Rock Lake helped inspire the museum. “I don’t think we should tear [the museum] down, it would be like tearing out a piece of our hearts.”
Teresa Bond, president of the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center, said her group was “here to support the arts,” before adding that the group would not take a position on the conflict.
Jesse Smith, cultural affairs commissioner appointed by District 9 Councilman Mark Clayton, recommended the eviction, saying he supported efforts to bring in more artists.
“My job is to make recommendations about the best use for cultural space,” Smith said at the meeting. “They could do a lot more with arts and artists in that space.”
But other task force members pointed to the Bath House’s significance to the lake. They questioned the logic of removing the history from such a historic space.
“[The museum] is the only thing that has to do with the lake in that building,” said task member Chip Northrup, adding that the art offerings “could be in a windowless building somewhere else, they don’t need to be in a building on the lake.”
The eviction notice was so poorly received, the city rescinded it, agreeing to more negotiations with the White Rock Lake Museum board before making any decision.
“We got the impression that, come hell or high water, the museum was going to stay,” Fisher says.
Despite the dispute over 300 square feet, everyone agrees that the history of White Rock Lake should be celebrated at the Bath House Cultural Center. Van Kleeck says the building doubles as a de facto visitor’s center for anyone who wanders in.
“People always have questions,” she says. “They’re curious about what all this is about.”
There is a need to inform, both those familiar with the lake and those who are visiting for the first time, about this neighborhood gem and its lasting impact on East Dallas.
The disagreement, which was marred by poor communication, boiled down to a question of how history should be presented and whether the museum was living up to its mission.
“Is this the best way to convey that information?” Scripps asks. “We [at OCA] all agree there is a better option.”
The museum board wasn’t opposed to new ideas for sharing the museum’s message with the modern visitor. They wanted assurances, however, that the original display would stand while they figured out how to spruce it up. While no paperwork had been signed at press time, the two sides were working to find common ground.
“We came to an agreement of reconciliation and compromise by addressing the OCA’s wish to have the museum updated and agreed to put a lease agreement in place through December 2018 with the understanding the White Rock Lake Museum can stay intact as it was originally designed while an interpretive plan for White Rock Lake is developed,” Kretsinger said in a statement.
The task force echoed sentiments that the community should be given a voice in the future of the Bath House.
“It is the only place at the lake open to the public,” says task force member Becky Rader, who is also the District 9 Park Board appointee. “It’s important that it reflect the whole community.”
OCA still hopes to dedicate the museum space to the arts in the near future. Scripps thinks the history could be better presented in a walking tour around the building, perhaps — leaving room for more gallery space inside.
“We need this space to be flexible, not stagnant,” she says.
When asked about the Bath House Cultural Center’s original purpose, to celebrate the lake through arts, Scripps says it all comes down to finding the right partner. They are but the facilitator of culture; it is up to community partners to provide the lake inspiration.
“No one has come forward and said, ‘I have a collection of White Rock Lake photos I’d love to show’, ” Scripps says. “If anyone wants to come forward as a partner, we’re all ears.”
Coming up at the Bath House
March 31-April 1: WingSpan Theatre Company presents the staged reading “Rose,” the story of an 80-year-old woman’s remarkable life.
April 8: Teatro Flor Candela’s 10th anniversary fundraising show, where proceeds will support the arts for our Spanish speaking neighbors.
April 29: Lake-a-Palooza, a free day of music and art with beer and wine for the adults and fun activities for the kids from 2-7 p.m.
On display in the Bath House galleries through April 22: “In This Day and Age,” a look at motherhood and parenting through photography; and “Por La Femme,” the photography of Angilee Wilkerson and Jana C. Perez.