Known as the South Side Baths when it was built, this was donated by steel baron and real-estate magnate Henry W. Oliver, who in 1903 gave the city land and money for a neighborhood bathhouse to be free to the people forever. In those days, many poor families—including the ones who worked for Oliver—lived in tenements where they had no access to bathing. (Even the Bedford School across the street from this bathhouse had outside privies until 1912.) Oliver might not raise his workmen’s salaries, but he was willing to make the men smell better.
To design the bathhouse, Oliver chose the most prestigious architect in the country: Daniel Burnham. Then, in 1904, Oliver died, and his gift spent almost a decade in limbo. The project was finally revived in 1913, by which time Burnham had died as well. The plans were taken over by MacClure & Spahr, an excellent Pittsburgh firm responsible for the Diamond Building and the Union National Building. No one seems to know how much they relied on Burnham’s drawings, but the Tudor Gothic style of the building (it was finished in 1915) is certainly in line with other MacClure & Spahr projects, like the chapel for the Homewood Cemetery. Even MacClure & Spahr’s early sketches show a quite different building, so it is probably safest to assume that little of Burnham remains here.
There was a fad for building public baths in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century, and on Saturday nights workers and their families would line up around the block to get into the bathhouses and wash off the grime of the week. Gradually, indoor plumbing became a feature of even the most notorious slum tenements, and all but one of the bathhouses closed. The Oliver Bathhouse, given to the people in perpetuity, remains. It has been saved by its indoor swimming pool, the only city pool open during the winter.
Nothing says “water” like a classical dolphin.