It was a hot day and a long bus ride from Midtown Manhattan to Ewing Township, New Jersey, to get a sneak peek of the restoration in progress of Louis Kahn's Bath House, forever geographically misplaced near Trenton. Two dozen or so intrepid architecture and design journalists, including yours truly, munched on box lunches and watched My Architect on the bus's overhead TV monitors as we rumbled down the Jersey Turnpike toward one of Kahn's pivotal projects from the early 1950s.
According to architect Michael Mills of the firm Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects, Kahn said that he "discovered myself as an architect" through the bath house project, completed in 1955 — the building where he formulated his concept of "served and servant" spaces. FMG is heading the $2.1 million restoration of the bath house and the day camp, which was also part of Kahn's design, and is also adding a new snack bar. (The original snack bar, not part of Kahn's design, was torn down, and FMG has designed a new one, sited at what the architects call a "respectful distance" from Kahn's landmark.)
The bath houses are seductive in their severe simplicity: cinder block, wood roofs, and that's about it. There is no heating and cooling. It is a building open to the elements. One slides between Kahn's walls and under his gorgeous timber roofs to shower rooms and changing rooms, and an introduction to the pools (which Kahn also designed — nothing special there).
The restoration is scheduled to be completed this fall, and right now just the essence of Kahn's architecture is visible. Sunlight spills over his rough-and-ready concrete-block walls. His open-structure wood roofs hover over the walls and seem to float above them. The weathering of the block is exposed; the walls around the central atrium were so badly deteriorated that they were taken down and are being replaced. The mortar joints are sloppy, but seem just right for a summer place. Shortly before the opening of the bath house, Kahn came to the site and sketched out a mural near the entry. The mural, covered for years with layers of paint, has been restored.
You look at the elements of this architecture and readily see the connection between the bath house and the Yale University Art Gallery, completed just prior. There are some of the same materials: concrete-block walls and wood. The delicate, diagonal concrete coffered ceiling at the gallery seems to suggest, at least in form and texture, the wood roofs at Trenton. The amazing stark clarity of the bath house plan seems to have set a high standard for Kahn's following works.
Kahn's "low-maintenance" buildings became, de facto, "no-maintenance" and languished for care. By the latter part of the last century they were a mess. In 2006 the Jewish Center of the Delaware Valley, which owned the property, sold it to Ewing Township and Mercer County. The 38-acre (15-hectare) property now supports a much-needed senior center, and the pool and summer camp.
The Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund gave $750,000 for the restoration. Kudos to the county and the township for recognizing the importance of Kahn's work and committing funds to save it. Mercer County Planning Director Donna Lewis says that it hasn't been easy to make the case to dedicate funds to restore the bath house, especially in this economic climate.
"I just don't get it," a reporter from The Trentonian newspaper told me, as we discussed the project after the tour. What's the big deal? Cinder blocks? The reporter uttered the term "emperor's clothes" at least once during our chat. I tried to explain why the bath house was important: the fact that it was a transitional project for Kahn, that he used such simple materials in such elegant ways, that there was something ancient and timeless in his contemporary arrangement of walls, roofs, air, and light.
The reporter was not buying it.
I guess you had to be there.
On the road in Ewing Township,
Michael J. Crosbie