A hundred years ago, Americans knew pools as intriguing public
attractions, usually located by the seashore or over natural
springs. Great places to socialize, they also provided one of the
few ways to escape the summer heat before the invention of air
Families — extremely wealthy ones — began owning their
own pools in this century’s early decades, making pool
ownership a symbol of the good life. By the 1920s, Hollywood
publicity machines had picked up on this image and reinforced it by
having movie stars pose beside their own pools. It took status and
glamour to swim alone — and movie stars had both.
Southern California pool construction averaged about 20 pool starts
a year through the ’20s, with half of those clients coming
from the movie industry. Designers modeled many of the pools after
the reflecting pools and channels found in traditional European
gardens. They generally cost $5,000 to $10,000 in 1920s dollars,
and were paid for in cash. The typical $5,000 model measured about
20 by 40 feet and came with a galvanized ladder. Tile trim,
chromium-plated brass ladders and springboards came in the deluxe
Early builders such as Pascal Paddock, Lawrence A. Cline, Philip
Ilsley and E.L. Wagner hailed from such well-established industries
as landscape architecture, construction and water treatment.
Recognizing a niche in building pools that could be quite
profitable, they started the nation’s first exclusive
pool- construction businesses, catering to municipalities,
millionaires and celebrities.
An engineering graduate, Paddock opened the first of these firms in
Southern California, leading some to call him the father of the
pool industry. For his company, pool construction began as an
offshoot of such related work as building concrete structures for
tennis courts and retaining walls, and designing sewage systems and
Pools didn’t evolve much in the ’20s. Unable to bend
forms for radiuses and coves, builders shaped rectangular pools
with straight, vertical walls that met perfectly flat floors. To
build them, crews formed and poured concrete using two curtains of
square (rather than deformed) steel rods as reinforcements. Other
contractors built the walls with concrete block — another
barrier to creating curves.
In California, the walls measured about 8 inches thick, while pool
walls on the East Coast generally measured approximately 12 inches
thick to withstand freezing temperatures. Lights at this time were
strictly dry-niche, located either outside the pool or in a wall
above the waterline.
Early pool construction was extremely labor-intensive, with crews
preparing for the pour with two complete sets of forms — on
the front and back of the walls. Many crews hand dug their pools,
especially the tough-to-reach parts. Some got help from mules.
Excavation equipment, if the company used any, was huge, running on
hand cranks, steam or gas.
Applying concepts used in basic concrete construction, builders
poured the pools with expansion joints between wall sections and
between the walls and the floor to accommodate natural earth
movement. No sealants had been developed for these joints in
underground and water applications, and builders didn’t seal
pools with plaster yet, so these vessels leaked quite a bit.
The tiny pool construction industry of the 1930s, with its moneyed
client base, largely escaped the ravages of the Depression and
moved ahead to begin inventing ways to build pools cheaper, faster
and better. Some builders even benefited from the glut of competent
labor looking for work in these hard times.
Inland from the two coasts, pools remained the exclusive domain of
public facilities, built mostly by general contractors. Wesley
Bintz, for example, made a name for himself in the Midwest building
“ovoid” pools for parks and municipalities. These $1
million, Olympic-sized aboveground projects were built like
stadiums, surrounded by bleachers that sat above dressing
Paddock, in his efforts to improve the performance, appearance and
cost effectiveness of pools, came up with the idea of finishing
them with white plaster to serve as a waterproof barrier.
Also in the early-’30s, a man with the last name Nightingale,
who worked for Cline, developed the first wet-niche light. It has
kept the same basic form ever since.
Around 1934, Paddock developed a new method for pouring a pool
shell: as a single, monolithic structure, eliminating the
leak-prone expansion joints. One of the first pools built in this
fashion was a 50-meter project at the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel
in California. It required a monolithic base to overcome
hydrostatic forces. In order to pour it all at once, crews worked
non-stop for three days and two nights.
At about the same time, Ilsley began moving away from the more
formal straight-wall pools and introduced the curvilinear pool wall
and oval pool. He got the idea from German reinforced concrete
domes built around the turn of the century. Some called these pools
“inverted dome” pools; others called them
To construct these vessels, with walls that curved downward toward
the center of the floor, crews installed rebar or a heavy wire mesh
and then hand-packed, or dry-packed, concrete over it. This
entailed dumping the concrete on the floor and building it up the
Ovals remained popular through the ’40s because of the
shape’s natural ability to evenly distribute forces, thereby
Around 1938, Ilsley and Paddock began building freeform pools.
Ilsley used his dry-pack method and boulders to form irregular
contours for mountain lake-style pools, while Paddock offered
curved ends and offsets to set apart his poured-concrete
By the end of the decade, Ilsley had bought out Paddock’s
business, which had become a nationwide company.