When industry pioneer Philip Ilsley built the first gunite pool in
1940, he couldn’t have known that within four years a
post-war economic boom would put the largest U.S. middle class in
history at the feet of the new pool-construction industry.
Ilsley, who by this time owned Paddock Pools, shot the first gunite
pool, which he called the “people’s pool,” in
west Los Angeles, incorporating his inverted-dome shape. It
measured 17 by 34 feet and cost between $1,000 and $1,600 —
somewhere between one-fifth and one-half the cost of the
poured-concrete pools his company had produced until then. The new
method proved not only more cost effective than poured concrete,
but also easier to control than hand-packed concrete, which
couldn’t hold its shape on vertical walls and so required a
very gradual slant from wall to floor.
Paddock’s productivity immediately jumped — from about
40 pools a year to 226. The volume business had begun.
Some of Paddock’s construction workers hated the new process,
reportedly even sabotaging one job so badly that Ilsley had to
modify it on site. He put large rocks at the water’s edge and
extra guniting to accentuate its irregularities. It became the
first gunite mountain-lake pool.
The pool industry may have remained lucrative through the
Depression, but World War II sent it into virtual hibernation.
Considering pools a non-essential use of scarce materials, the
government banned most construction.
Once the war was over, however, millions of men who were trained to
swim and financially fortified by the GI Bill could own homes and
enjoy new comforts. Some wives continued to work after the war
ended, boosting the family income even higher. These events
couldn’t have been better timed if Ilsley himself had
Materials remained scarce immediately after the war, but the
industry began laying the groundwork for its first true building
boom with early public relations efforts that convinced
publications to run stories about pools.
In 1946, Phil Anthony turned his attention from building backyard
concrete-block incinerators to pools exclusively, forming Anthony
Pools in Los Angeles. Soon after, in 1948, Herman Silverman started
Sylvan Pools. In 1952, California Pools opened its doors for
After another industry stall during the Korean War, the
construction boom was cemented in place as 1952 to ’57
brought the first true rush for pools. By this time, the pool
industry had begun moving inward from the two coasts, with Florida,
Texas and the upper Midwest taking their cues from California and
New York. In this decade, Anthony Pools — now a multi-branch
company — brought financing to the industry, prompting even
more families to call local pool builders. The National Swimming
Pool Institute formed in 1956, coalescing the industry and
providing a forum for builders and manufacturers to exchange ideas
As the market for pools thrived, it brought some unfortunate
byproducts, namely, price competition and the resulting
corner-cutting, fly-by-night operations and even false
The ’50s boom continued through the 1960s, with burgeoning
businesses, low unemployment and foreign markets clamoring for
American products. Motels and publications continued to put pools
in people’s consciousness, and housing contractors began
including pools in their tract plans.
From the end of World War II through the 1960s, the gunite pool and
many of its components went from invention to fine- tuning,
until they emerged very similar to what we see on modern pools
Many companies didn’t convert to gunite until the 1950s, with
the East Coast’s first builder, E.L. Wagner Co. of New York,
shooting for the first time in 1950. Anthony Pools started guniting
in ’51. While gunite made the most sense for residential
pools, this new process required a substantial up-front investment
in machinery. And the pools were still more labor-intensive and
rudimentary than modern gunite models.
Builders continued to experiment with new types of pool structures,
some less successful than others. Some builders, before they
converted to gunite, used tar to seal control joints, which made
painting them impossible. Others reportedly experimented with
urethane and even roofing paper.
During this period, crews’ lives were simplified as
excavation equipment shrank and became easier to maneuver; rebar
lost the hard spots that would kink and refuse to bend; and
manufacturers produced guniting equipment that didn’t require
a dedicated operator.
Pool systems built in the 1960s could more gracefully withstand
time and usage, thanks to plumbing’s evolution from
galvanized iron and copper to black polyethylene, and finally to
PVC. Fittings also went from brass to stainless steel to
Hydraulic systems became more effective as builders included main
drains as standard components (but usually just one per residential
pool). When manufacturers began making the drains as a complete
unit, builders no longer had to cut them into gunite, cover them
with a grate and hope they wouldn’t leak.
Skimmers came into existence as well, first as a floating device
and later as part of the pool wall. Underwater lights fell into
wide acceptance too, once people got used to the idea of having
electricity near the water. Ground fault circuit interrupters
entered the scene in this period as well, helping to quell
Builders made pool configurations more interesting and user
friendly by fashioning the kidney-shaped pool — the
’50s and ’60s version of the freeform — and
designing love seats and steps. The use of marble dust instead of
silica sand in plaster eliminated the tan-colored spots that would
appear over time.
Otherwise, the appearance of pools remained relatively static
during these 30 years. For the most part, builders had only blue
and white tiles at their disposal, and decks remained mostly of
broom-finished or salt-finished concrete, although less-accessible
native stones and exposed aggregate did cover decks on high-end
projects. In 1962, the advent of Kool Deck ushered in the modern
deck finishes we see today. And cantilevered decks began appearing
in the mid- to late-’60s.