Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine living in a city and not being able to access water as easily as turning a tap. Public restrooms, water fountains, showers, and sinks are accessible throughout neighborhoods in community centers and libraries. However, water on demand is still a fairly new concept. More than a century ago, hot water was considered a luxury–and Yonkers was at the forefront of crucial infrastructure that made hot water accessible to the masses.
By the 1890s, Yonkers was a rapidly growing city, boasting a population of just over 30,000 residents–in fact, the city had almost doubled in size between 1880 and 1890, and was struggling to develop at a pace that matched its growth. Indoor sewage systems were all but nonexistent, with the New York Tenement House Committee of 1894 reporting that within 29 tenements spanning 2 acres of lower Manhattan, there were only 247 toilets and a single toilet between 2,781 people. The City of Yonkers, recognizing the need for public hygiene infrastructure at such a pivotal period of growth, set out to construct the first public bathing houses in the country.
The first public bath house was built in 1896 just down the block from Joseph Cerrato Park at 55 Jefferson Street. The bath houses proved to be popular almost immediately–by 1901, over 26,384 people a year were patronizing the public baths. It was so successful that a second bath was built in 1898 at 27 Vineyard Avenue, near Grant Park. In the 1903 edition of Yonkers Illustrated, the city was hailed as the “first in the country to enter this field of municipal activity,” later writing that the bath houses were used as models throughout the United States for their advancement in public sanitation and community activity.
By the 1920s, there were four baths throughout the city of Yonkers: Public Bath House No. 3 was built in 1909 at 48 Yonkers Avenue, while a fourth and final was constructed in 1925 at 138 Linden St. between Getty Square and Nodine Hill. Public Bath House No. 3 was unique in its architecture–unlike the mission style popular with other bath houses, the third bath house was more elaborate in its design. Built in a Romanesque Revival style, the building featured a five-bay façade, red brick, and a tile parapet. The ornamental tiles didn’t end at the exterior either–the entrances (of which there were two separate ones for men and women), showers, and the pool were decorated with intricate tile work throughout. While the house was remodeled twice, in 1930 and 1958, much of the decorative elements remained the same, including extensive mosaic work and a series of arched pediments lining the doors. Unlike the other bath houses, which were modeled specifically to appear modest and unpretentious to its working class patrons, by 1909, bath houses had become commonplace and thus, a prime blank slate for the architectural playfulness of the Neo-Romanesque style.
During their heyday, these baths served as both havens for the working class and de-facto community centers, facilitating a type of social engagement that went beyond the original purpose of mass sanitary systems. However, the bathhouses shrunk in popularity as indoor plumbing became more accessible, and apartments were being built or renovated to include one or more bathrooms per unit. By the mid-1930s, the public baths had become all but obsolete.
By the mid 20th century, Public Bath Houses No. 3 and 4 had been converted into community pools. A 1982 article from The New York Times claimed that over 4,700 people a month utilized the pool and shower services at the fourth bath house, while over 3,000 people regularly used Public Bath House No. 3, particularly as the city began to offer swimming lessons and organized local swim teams for children.
The first bath house was demolished in 1962 to make way for a residential development. The Mount Hebron Apostolic Temple bought the second bath house in the 1960s, replacing the community showers with pews. The building still serves as the venue for the church today. While the remaining three buildings were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, that didn’t stop continued development–to the dismay of many residents, the fourth bath house was demolished in 2011.
Public Bath House No. 3 is still standing on Yonkers Avenue. While the building still boasts a City of Yonkers Public Pool sign, the building has not operated as a pool in years, and many of the children’s aquatics programs that once thrived there have been moved to Mark Twain Pool on Woodlawn Avenue. While the building may no longer be in service, the bay façade and red brick still stand out against the storefronts and residences that line the area. It’s been just over 100 years since Yonkers was hailed as the model for municipal health services, and while only two of the public bath houses still stand, they continue to be reminders of the importance of public works in blossoming urban ecosystems.
YPL Intern, Sarah Lawrence College ’22
- “Building Structure Identification Form: Public Bath House No. 3.” Division for Historic Preservation, New York State Parks and Recreation. 6 February 1981.
- Clark, H. (2020, May 7). Back in the Day: Yonkers was the First U.S. City to Offer Year-Round Public Hot, Cold Baths. The Journal News. Retrieved March 1, 2022.
- Whitehouse, F. (1982, July 11). Yonkers Asks Designation for its Three Old Bathhouses. The New York Times, sec. 11, pp. 1.
- Yonkers Illustrated. 1910 edition. New York: Yonkers Board Of Trade.