Excerpts taken from: "New Orleans" Magazine, June, 2002
Splashing in the Audubon Natatorium
The pool could hold 2,000 churning children on a hot summer day. A huge fountain in
the center squirted water 30 feet straight up and two jets of water as big around as a
child's head shot horizontally out of the Center Fountain's sides. It was even more fun
than frolicking in the stream from a fire hydrant.
Most people who visit Audubon Park today are too young to remember this
magnificent swimming pool, which was opened in 1928 and bulldozed out of existence
in 1997. It's a shame.
It was the biggest swimming pool in the South. There were two tall water slides at the
shallow end and, acres away, at the deep end were six diving boards. There were four
one-meter, or "low" boards, and two three-meter "high" boards, which we called the
"hell divers." It was plenty high enough that, when you climbed up there, you had
second thoughts about going off. A lot of kids just climbed back down the ladders.
It was a rite of passage to progress from paddling around in the shallow end, which
was 3 feet deep, to swimming in the 9-foot end.
When you were too little even for the 3-foot end, you went into the mammoth "baby
pool," which was encircled by elongated red-brick steps. You could perch on the top
step and get used to the feel of the water, then move down one step at a time until you
got to the bottom. Here the water would reach a grown-up's knees, but it was plenty
deep enough for a youngster not yet steady on dry land. A small water slide at one end
provided a mini-thrill as you slid down and landed in the water and,
usually, into your mother's arms as well.
Before you got into that big pool complex, you proceeded through the red-brick
bathhouses (men on one side of the pool, women on the other), stowed your clothes in
any of the 2,500 lockers installed there, and scuttled through a maze of showers and
(just before entering the pool by passing under a curving pedestrian bridge) through a
one-foot deep, and very wide, footbath of disinfectants. The Audubon Park authorities
made sure that no germs found their way into the magnificence that was the Audubon
Park swimming pool.
But it wasn't even officially called a pool. It was the Audubon Park Natatorium. If
you studied Latin in high school, you could figure out what that meant. The street in
front of it was called Natatorium Drive.
But park authorities could be excused for being a bit pretentious -- after all, this
natatorium cost $250,000 to build, which was a fortune in those days.
Park officials closed the pool in 1962, rather than bend to the laws that mandated that
both black and white children be allowed to swim there. Seven years later, the New
Orleans Recreation Department opened it again and named it the Whitney Young Pool,
after the 1960s civil rights leader. But the pool at Audubon Park would never be
Pool hours were erratic in later years. Under Audubon Park's administration, the
facility had been opened seven days a week for four months each year. But by the
1990s it was only open now and then -- sometimes for only a few weeks out of the
For several decades after the pool opened in 1928, The Times-Picayune sponsored
free swimming lessons. Thousands of children learned to put their faces in the water
and blow bubbles there. By the early '90s, instead of being the pride of the South, the
pool was viewed by some as being a nuisance. The Audubon Park authorities
announced they would use the space for a promenade entrance to the newly-renovated
zoo. They said the pool was in disrepair and they closed it in 1992.
The squabbling that followed went on for six years, while the pool sat empty, its thick
concrete sides baking in the sun. Mayor Marc Morial, who himself remembered
swimming there as a child, said he would let the neighborhood groups work it out, but
he would make a decision if they couldn't reach an agreement. He favored the idea of
a smaller pool on the site, which could be built for $3.5 million. Of course, that didn't
include the cost of demolishing the old pool, which had been built to last forever.
Some people suggested turning the pool complex into a water park, something the city
Eventually Morial's idea prevailed, and a small pool was built -- about the size of the
original baby pool. It opened at a cost of $1.8 million. It has two bathhouses of tan
brick, and tiles decorated with blue squiggles that suggest water. It is set squarely
between two remnants of the big old red-brick bathhouses that led to the shower
mazes. The mazes are gone, but the entrances to the bathhouses are preserved for
posterity because they have been deemed historically significant. They now stand
alone in the grass, like Roman ruins, with signs on them still reading "girls" and "boys."
There was plenty of room left over for the imposing promenade to Audubon Zoo.
And there's lots and lots of extra green space -- not that there was ever a dearth of that
in Audubon Park.
But we still don't have a water park.