In The Swim: California Pool Culture

Published on : Saturday, June 6, 2015

California Pool CultureRight up there with the Hollywood sign and the silhouette of palm trees, perhaps there is no more iconic symbol of California than the swimming pool. That may be because the modern swimming pool was essentially created here along with the sun-drenched leisure culture that swims along with it. From the lavish plunges favored by Golden Era Hollywood stars and moguls in decades past to swank rooftop hotel pools that crown some of Southern California’s hottest hotels, swimming pools are an essential part of California’s cachet.


In popular culture past and present, California’s swimming pools are referenced in everything from the art of David Hockney to the theme song of the Beverly Hillbillies to the famous opening scene of the Academy Award-winning film, Sunset Boulevard. And of course there are countless music videos featuring SoCal swimming pools, like “My Friend Has A Swimming Pool” by Brit band Mausi.


Going Deep: The History of California’s Swimming Pools
The idea of the backyard swimming pool was born in California when Hollywood stars and moguls started outdoing each other in the 1920’s. Early A-listers Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford built one of the largest pools in the country at Pickfair, their Beverly Hills estate. The chlorinated competition between Golden Era stars got so hot, that a popular Hollywood publicity stunt at the time featured stars like the famed couple and other notables, including Bing Crosby and Jack Benny, posing in canoes in their lavish pools. The apex of this competition amongst the moneyed splashy set of the era is best exemplified by the famous Neptune Pool and indoor Roman Pool constructed by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst at his San Simeon estate. Designed by the noted architect Julia Morgan, the pools were stylized temples to wealth and lavish pool party venues for Hearst’s high-profile friends. Completed over a span of 12 years with multiple modifications, the Neptune pool is over 100 feet long and features marble colonnades adorned with four 17th century Italian bas-reliefs and the façade of a Greco-Roman temple. Talk about going off the deep end.


By the 1940’s, the backyard pool trend had spread beyond the stars and a Sonoma builder named Thomas Church – inspired by nature’s organic shapes around him – created the first kidney-shaped pool for a residence. The rest is design history as the innovative curving lines became a Mid-Century Modern icon destined to grace thousands of backyards from Palm Springs to Pacific Palisades.


Meanwhile, some of the country’s most high-profile architects including Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra also got in the act, creating fantastic pools for celebrated homes like Wright’s Ennis House (famously featured in Blade Runner). By the early Sixties, the Los Angeles Times reported that no other region in the US had more swimming pools than Southern California.


Beyond upscale private homes and the estates of Hollywood’s elite, it was the glam image of pools that also made them a signature staple at California’s most prominent hotels. Extravagant, inviting pools became a fixture at posh landmarks like the Beverly Hills Hotel, affectionately known as the “Pink Palace,” where the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor stayed in spacious private bungalows and took discreet dips in the storied pool. Other historic hotels known for their deluxe dips include the legendary Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club at the Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara featuring a seaside perch and oversized Olympic pool, and the Moorish splendor of Palm Springs’ Colony Palms Hotel, where mobsters and the Rat Pack once dipped their toes.


The New Wave of California Pools
Today, California’s newer hotels have upped their game by placing luxe, splashy havens on their rooftops. This heady new mix includes elements like firepits, creative cocktails and DJs spinning poolside in swank settings that could even impress a Rat Packer. A few hotels known for their top-floor poolside scenes include the W Hollywood’s Wet Deck, The Standard on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and the Andaz in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Pool scenes don’t have to be sky-high to have appeal in California. A mecca for all things fun and sun, Palm Springs boasts every manner of hotel pool scene, from the chill, relaxed ambiance of the intimate courtyard pool at The Amado, a Mid-Century apartment complex-turned-boutique property, to the hipster haven watering hole that is the Ace Hotel & Swim Club. In fact, pool culture is such a big deal here there is even a music and pool festival held every summer: Splash House, a wet and wild pool party held over two weekends that combines three area hotels (Saguaro Hotel, Hilton Hotel and Hacienda Cantina) with amenities like private cabanas, top international DJs and after parties.


Looking to what’s next in pool culture here might be as easy as paying a visit to the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica. In one locale, this prized community asset combines many of the elements that define California pool culture. Spanning the decades, the Annenberg facility began as a luxurious 100-room estate built by pool-loving publishing tycoon W.R. Hearst for Hollywood diva Marion Davies. The 5-acre estate – including a marble swimming pool – eventually became a hotel and private club. In subsequent years, the State of California acquired the property and following a $27.5 million grant provided by the Annenberg Foundation, the former estate was re-imagined into a resource for all to enjoy, just steps from the sand of Santa Monica Beach.


Today, the facility retains historic structures from the early days, including the Marion Davies guesthouse and swimming pool featuring restored tiles and original marble, as well as new recreation and event spaces. On any given day, there could be volleyball clinics with pros happening on the beach, a photo exhibit or salsa concert in the event space and of course swimming open to the public in the pool. Other facilities include a splash pad, children’s play area, gallery and spectacular beach views at every turn. This fantastic resource open to the public just underscores the fact that when it comes to swimming pool culture in California, just dive in, the water is fine.


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