The history of the Whitney Young Pool
Image provided by: The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Acc no. 1979.325.4424
After City Park opened a swimming pool in 1924, Audubon Park decided to build one, too. Funds mostly came from private and corporate donations and an “advertisers fair” held at the park, which featured a children’s bathing beauty contest, a water carnival with gondolas and a treasure hunt through the park for adults. Donated prizes included a trip to Cuba, a new car and an empty lot in Lakeview.
The Audubon Park Natatorium opened in 1928. The double connected pools were 250-feet long and together were 150-feet across, making it the largest pool in the South and the second largest in the country. Designed to resemble a Vieux Carré courtyard, the pool had dressing rooms and bathhouses enclosing three sides, and a large fountain in the middle of the pool. Multiple diving boards and slides ran along the sides.
For the next 35 years, the pool was a popular place for social events. Swimming meets and free children’s swimming classes were offered every year, and elaborate exhibitions were held regularly. Olympic and comedic trick divers, water ballet, synchronized swimming and water pageants featuring storylines with music, fishermen, sea serpents and seals entertained the great crowds that flocked to the pool all summer. A sand beach was added in 1939.
The pool closed in 1962 to avoid complying with desegregation laws. The suggestion to turn it into a bowling alley was dismissed, and after a great effort by local business and civic leaders the pool was leased to the city and reopened in 1969 with a grand party featuring tons of live music, including Preservation Hall and the Olympia Brass Band. The pool was renamed the Whitney Young Pool in 1974, in memory of the late Civil Rights leader.
The giant pool was closed in 1992 due to deteriorating conditions and cost of operation. After many years of debate, a new, smaller pool took its place and was opened in 1998.
Many swimming seasons opened with grand pageantry: King Neptune and mermaids rode in on elaborate water floats and left under a display of fireworks; a history of swimming from the Stone Age to modern times was presented; and in 1951, a swimsuit fashion show featured ladies in Hawaiian-themed swimwear being promenaded around the edge of the pool by a ukulele player. Apparently the ladies of 1933, who were horrified by the pool’s “shorts ruling” allowing men to go shirtless, had decided the view wasn’t so bad after all.