An ode to a municipal natatorium.

Photo by Alice Dreger of the Moores Park Pool, taken from the bleachers in 2019.

It is hard to know if you are dreaming of the Moores Park pool, for it is as a dream.

An oval of blue water set in a pedestal a hundred years old, a fat old lady with Art Deco earrings. The dark green trees and shrubs all around and above, lush and unkempt. A set of bleachers to one side providing a place where people without reason can watch you swim. An inexplicable iron fence keeping them from joining you.

And lying on your back, floating with your face to the sky, you turn your head just enough to dunk your ear, and there it is: the equally magnificent Otto E. Eckert power plant, with its three horns, those smokestacks visible for miles.

It is the only municipal pool in which I long to swim, because it feels insane.

In open water, I want to swim far and juggle the waves. I want to do. But this small pool calms the urge to do through the implausible collision of these two 1920s monuments to public works  – the sweet little natatorium, the gargantuan power plant.

The pool came first, its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places indicates. (The nomination, written in 1984, succeeded.)

“The J. H. Moores Memorial Natatorium (commonly known as the Moores Park Pool) is located at the eastern edge of Moores Park in Lansing near the south bank of the Grand River,” the nomination says. “The pool is an ellipsoidal-plan, above-ground structure with pumphouse, showers, locker rooms, etc., located along the periphery of the pool wall. The pool is constructed of reinforced concrete and has a rubble-stone façade.”

Constructed in 1922, the natatorium is at once so humble and so grand it makes people who come upon it exclaim. Because it is built into a hillside, a first-time visitor to the park will often stumble upon it without realizing what it is until she is on the deck. From the ground in front of it, as you stand at the front doors, it looks like it might just be an overdecorated shed or maybe an old armory.

Photo of the entrance to the Moores Park Pool from the 1984 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Charmingly, “A balustrade of reinforced concrete construction surrounds the upper deck. Fourteen concrete lamp standards with frosted glass globes…rise above the balustrade at regular intervals.”

It all looks ready for a synchronized swimming production number with flappers in their Hollywood bathing suits and caps. Does this explain the mysterious bleachers?

Photo of the Moores Park Pool (emptied for the off-season) from the 1984 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

A man named J. Henry Moores donated the parkland in 1908 to the City of Lansing after making his fortune in real estate and “lumbering activities.” His investments included the Lansing Wheelbarrow Company, which, the nomination to the federal government instructs, “became one of the city’s largest firms in the late nineteenth century.” Who knew you could make a fortune in wheelbarrows?

When he gave over the land, Moores specified three conditions: that it always be a public park, that it always retain the name Moores Park, “and that no intoxicating beverages be used or sold on the property.” If I have broken that last rule, I have not been alone.

In 1922, fourteen years after Moores gave the land, a city engineer by the name of Wesley Bintz designed the pool. He must have been well pleased with his creation for, a year later, Bintz resigned his Lansing city job “in order to devote his career exclusively to swimming pool designs.”

“The Moores Park Pool is the prototype of what became known as the ‘Bintz Pool,’ an ovoid, entirely above ground structure containing locker and shower rooms and pumping and filtering equipment below the deck which surrounds the pool itself,” the historic-designation nomination explains. “The Bintz pool was especially suited to the needs of urbanized areas and could be designed to accommodate large numbers of users.”

Photo of the front of the Moores Park natatorium from the 1984 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

It was only recently I learned this magic pool served as the model for hundreds of municipal pools – in Rutland, Vermont; Johnson City, New York; Rockford, Illinois; Montevideo, Minnesota; and beyond. Until it closed four years ago, having fallen into disrepair in a cash-strapped city, it was believed to be the oldest continuously-operated municipal pool in the nation.

The only mystery remaining is how it is the application for the historic designation made no mention of the pool’s behemoth brother, the Eckert plant, whose construction began in 1927.

Just a bit of the Eckert power plant in a photo showing its three smokestacks. The official names of the stacks are Wynken, Blynken and Nod. The folks I know call them Inky, Stinky, and Blinky. (Photo by Alice Dreger)

The power-generation facility stands kitty-corner across the river from the natatorium so that you cannot possibly miss it as a swimmer; it is with you with every stroke. It mumbles a steady roar and burps and sometimes gives off a screaming test of its flood warning siren – a siren that will hopefully go off if the dam at the Eckert ever breaks. (Moores Park is a lowland, and the flood will drown everyone in it if they don’t run for the upper parking lot come time.)

Detail of a map included in the 1984 nomination. Near the center is Moores Park with the pool's locaiton indicated by a circle. The greyed area across the river shows the location of the Eckert power plant.
I snapped this photo of Eckert and its stacks from my seat on Amtrak on my last trip from Chicago to East Lansing. I took the photo because a friend had just texted to ask whether I was home yet, and these smokestacks are how you always know you're back home in Lansing. They are easily visible from the tracks, the highways, and the air.

I’ve swum at Bintz’s pool only a handful of times, for I have been faced with the challenge of getting in. It’s a Lansing Parks & Rec facility, and I’m an East Lansing resident. One time, I remember, I just snuck in while the staff was goofing off. One time, I convinced a Lansing friend to come over and get me in. Another time, I brought children in tow and had them smile and pout until we gained admission.

When the pool was shuttered, just before the pandemic, we devotees wept. A group sprung up to try to figure out what it would cost to fix it. Six million dollars, their volunteer experts concluded. It is no exaggeration to say I played the lottery for this pool.

Photo of the Moores Park Pool taken in 2017 by Alice Dreger.

And now, the pork cometh.

As everyone in the nation seems to know, the Democrats are finally in power in the Michigan legislature and in the governor’s office. There is much they still haven’t fixed. Most notably, they have yet to fix the state’s Freedom of Information law, which continues to be one of the worst in the nation, shielding state legislators and the governor from records disclosures. They have yet to institute anti-SLAPP legislation of the sort that would have helped me when a prison-bound real estate developer sued me for defamation despite having no case.

But they’re going to fix our pool, or at least send $6.2 million dollars trying. In the last week, an invitation went out to the community to come tidy up the place in preparation for the renovations. It brought a crowd much bigger than necessary. Had I known of the event in advance, I would have snuck in.

The metaphor presents itself – the pooling of public dollars and labor to bring us an oneiric restoration at a time when everything (Everything) is starting to feel surreal.

By next summer, if all goes well, the taps will be pushed open to fill the ovoid basin again. And when I find myself perceiving that I am in that water, floating and gazing at the stacks I look for on my way back home, I will again not know if I am just dreaming.