Warm welcome for Tepid Baths

By Denise Montgomery

Once upon a time in the Tepid Baths, men and women could not swim together. Women hardly swam at all: they bathed, lolling under hanging baskets of flowers, trying not to get their heads wet. The salt water played havoc with their hair.

The baths opened in December 1914 at a cost of £10,670. The grand Edwardian architecture, on reclaimed harbour land, was innovative. It featured a roof supported by large steel trusses and walls of reinforced concrete. They were built to improve public health and safety. One way of doing that seems vaguely gross by today's standards - it provided baths. Not all homes in those days had bathrooms, and filling a tub in the kitchen was common until the 50s.

The baths' main purpose was swimming but, after numerous patch-ups, they were found, in 2010, to be dangerous. The council closed the doors, and some feared the Tepid Baths would never open again. Leighton Carrad was one of those people. The regular swimmer was suspicious of the council's plans for the prime real estate.

"I don't think they're going to reopen the pools and neither does anyone else I've spoken to," he told The Aucklander in February 2010.

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In the 70s, Mr Carrad had been in a group which successfully opposed the council's attempt to sell the land to private developers.

Forty years on he feared that was the agenda again. But, when The Aucklander talked to him this week, he said he was rapt with the restoration. "I haven't been in. I just had a peek through the door from the outside," says the 81-year-old. "It looks terrific."

That's two years and $15.8 million of terrific. The council originally thought the job could take up to four years, but it's taken half that.

The Tepid Baths are about memories for Mr Carrad.

"I learned to swim there at the age of five. I remember going there with Mum and Dad and somebody stole five shillings out of Dad's wallet in the changing rooms."

In recent years, he says, queues were sometimes hard to bear. That will likely be the case when the baths reopen on Saturday. Tickets to swim that day have been snapped up, but people can come and see the pools officially reopened, then swim on Sunday.

Jeremy Bennett, a Jasmax architect, says the restoration was one of the more challenging tasks he's been set.

"Pools are complex by their nature, but with it being a category A building so much had to be protected. We had fortnightly meetings for two years to ensure it was all done properly, and every element was debated," he says.

The sign out front still includes the words "Salt Water", although the pools stopped using salt water in 1974. These days liquid chlorine keeps them clean, with CO2 for pH adjustment and sodium bicarbonate for alkalinity. The filtration system changes the larger pool's water fully every three hours, the smaller every 1.5 hours and the spa every 30 minutes. It's also future-proofed, with rainwater collection systems and UV sterilisation equipment good to go once there's a bit more money in the bank.

From when you step in the door, heritage is on show, from rusty metal struts in a display case, to the curved reception desks harking back to the same shape they were in 1914. Artwork on the Sturdee St frontage features rusty tresses from the old pool "celebrating the rust".

"We wanted it to be eyecatching. It has a shipyard feel to it," Mr Bennett says. The 50s neon sign has been reinstated, and lights up the 9m chimney stack. Ceiling panels in the reception area replicate the 1914 originals, and poolside cabana doors are in keeping with the original design. Gone is the red concourse - replaced with a subtler grey.

Workers scraped back the paint to discover what lay beneath and replicated that wherever possible. Plaster and paintwork has been restored with breathable paint.

In days gone by women had to traipse poolside to the communal changing rooms at the back, bringing in dust from their outdoor shoes. Their new changing rooms, in stark, shiny black and white tiles, are moved to the front.

The ladies' and learners' pool is 15m long, 80cm deep at the shallow end, 1.2m at the other. In a nice nod to the past, hanging baskets of [real-looking] fake flowers hang from the roof. The main pool is 25m long, 8m shorter than the original, but one lane wider, and was completely rebuilt. The pool is 1.1m deep at the shallow end graduating to 2.1m. It's also been moved slightly to create room for poolside cabanas.

The skylight above the pools brings in natural light. Gone are the rusty steel beams and crumbling roof that contributed to the closure.

"The space used to feel quite oppressive," explains Mr Bennett. "But the high roofs and the skylight stop that. In summer you can also let in fresh air." Eyes can also see in - through large panes of glass on the Customs St West side. "We're yet to see how people will feel about being seen in their swimming costumes," Mr Bennett laughs.

In its heyday, the baths attracted around 250,000 people a year. When it closed, that was down to 195,000. Centre manager Davin Bray has high hopes for the revamped facility.

"Things have changed in this part of town. It used to mainly be corporates who used it but now there are hundreds of apartments all around here so we're hoping those people come and use it as well," he says.

The goal is 250,000 to 300,000 members; hours have been extended to cater for that. Many will be attracted by the state-of-the-art gym upstairs. , featuring $400,000 of hi-tech Cybex equipment including virtual cycles that lean into corners.

"They're a full body workout," explains gym manager Lucy Lloyd-Barker. "It's actually pretty tough. You can't last on them for long."

Bored on the treadmill? Switch on your TV and flick through 10 channels. There are two wheelchair-friendly cardio machines.

"We'd like to get 1200 members in the fitness area," says Mr Bray. "The big pool can fit around 60 at any one time, but there's a lot more space in the whole facility with the gym upstairs."

For $22.50 a week there's access to the gym, spa and pools, and opening hours are 5.30am-9pm weekdays and 7am-7pm at weekends.

Mr Carrad says he'll be there some day soon: "There's nothing like the Tepid Baths anywhere else in Auckland."


SATURDAY Grand opening June 23, 11am. Walk-through, self-guided tour will end on Customs St with free sausage sizzle (first come first served). Midday, official opening with Mayor Len Brown and Waitemata Local Board chairman Shale Chambers.

SUNDAY Pool opens 7am for normal business. Swimming: adults $6.50, children $4, seniors and CSC $5.20.

What do you think? Have your say in the comment box below. Or head to our Facebookpage.

- The Aucklander

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