By Neil Whaley, Guest Blogger
English Bay’s Crystal Swimming Pool had its beginnings in a 1926 proposal for a private luxury facility called the Connaught Beach Club. That club was to have a pool, tennis courts, separate Turkish baths for men and women, a beauty parlor and barber shop, private and general dining rooms with meals prepared by a Parisian chef, a ballroom, and sleeping quarters (each with a private bath) for members and their out-of-town guests. The Vancouver public would be blocked from access to the private beach on the section of the land owned by the club.
The Connaught Beach Club evolved from a proposal for a hotel at English Bay. In 1926 a Los Angeles company wanted to build a 250 to 300-room hotel on Beach Avenue at Nicola. The project made progress after the Californians stepped to the background and Vancouver businessmen fronted the idea, led by Walter F. Evans, who had financial interests in a city music store and in the Devonshire Apartments. Honorary governors included mayor L.D. Taylor, premier John Oliver, Sun publisher R.J. Cromie, UBC chancellor Robert McKechnie and businessmen like Frank Begg of Begg Motors.
The Connaught Beach Club backers promoted the idea of an exclusive institution that would be a social benefit for the entire family. A promotional brochure said:
Membership taken out by the head of a family automatically makes that man’s wife and dependent sons and daughters members also, enjoying equally with him all the privileges of the Club. Every member of the family, therefore, gains the privileges of association in thought and play with the most desirable companionship in the community. Where whole families associate thus in pleasant and luxurious surroundings, impulses are generated, friendship are formed by the younger members, which influence their whole after lives. And in these times of startlingly advancing youth, the Connaught Beach Club is one place where parents, anxious to guide their children safely through the danger shoals of adolescence, may oversee the pleasures and social contacts of their children without curtailing, or seeming to curtail them.
City council approved the proposal on the condition that a 50-foot strip of beach remained accessible to the public. The salt water pool was the focus of the $60,000 first phase of construction, which started in autumn 1927 with completion expected by May 1928. The project ran into trouble. Construction stopped, the company was reorganized in July 1928 and the architectural plans were altered.
By the pool’s July 1929 opening, the Connaught name had been abandoned and the facility became the “semi-public” Crystal Pool. It offered a 100 by 30-foot pool, a lounge with deep pile rugs and comfortable chairs grouped around an open fireplace, a tea room for lunch, and dressing rooms with showers and a steam room. Ads promoted “dancing every night” with a live orchestra, until the city refused a permit. None of the Connaught’s other proposed facilities was ever built.
The business seems to have functioned routinely, although there were at least minor problems with the valves and technology which drew salt water from English Bay and heated it. The facility hosted swim meets, lifesaving courses, bridge tournaments and other social events.
Drownings and near-drownings in Vancouver waters were in the news in that period. The Crystal Pool promoted itself in a newspaper ad with the gruesome text: “Children and adults are safe in our warm sea-water swimming pool. Funerals are expensive – don’t take chances – buy a summer pass.” (I can only find the “funerals” ad published once. After that, ads mentioned safety but stopped short of alluding to the death of children.)
Fast forward to 1937. The owners were in tax arrears and offered to sell the pool to the city park board. Ratepayers approved $27,000 for the transaction in a 1939 plebiscite – then grew increasingly frustrated when the pool remained closed.
In late 1940, Park board chair R. Rowe Holland said an un-budgeted $15,000 was needed to repair the facility. Holland said the board had been interested in acquiring the property in its quest for an unbroken stretch of public waterfront, got it for less than expropriation would have cost and had only intended to operate the pool for a few years (which wasn’t mentioned at the time of the plebiscite). Mayor Lyle Telford wanted it to be clear that the closure wasn’t the city’s fault; the park board knew about the repair cost before the plebiscite. Once that information became public, the park board and city council worked quickly to fund the repairs, and the pool re-opened in April 1941.
I knew that Crystal Pool had a history of preventing Asians and blacks from swimming with whites, but I didn’t know that the policy only started immediately after the city took over operation of the facility. And I didn’t know that the black woman who went public after being turned away was one of the original shareholders when Crystal Pool bonds were sold in 1929.
The Aquatic Centre replaced the pool in May 1974 and the Crystal structure was demolished that year.