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Pool crush(es): Julia Morgan's Berkeley Beauties

I fell in love with Julia Morgan back in high school, only I didn't know it at the time.

Sometime in the early 80's, I was out in Southern California for a swim meet and, after the event, my family took a trip north from LA up the PCH. I can't recall how far we got or every place we went, but none of that mattered once I developed my first true case of pool lust: we visited the Hearst Castle in San Simeon and I saw the incredible Neptune and Roman pools. As I wasn't bold enough to attempt a bandit swim, I figured I'd never get the opportunity to swim in a pool so beautiful.

Little did I know then, I just had to wait about 30 years.

In late August of 2014, I found myself in Berkeley while on a business trip, pushed there by the high hotel prices across the Bay. I had gotten in an evening swim at the somewhat dated, but still impressive Spieker Aquatic Center, a pool I had raced in back in college ...

... but then noticed that the Cal-Berkeley campus had another, more intriguing pool, the Hearst North Pool, a 100 foot long marbled beauty designed by none other than famed architect Julia Morgan:

At the time, I wrote on my training blog ...

Yes, it was built in the 1920s (or so I'm told by the world's most awesome "pool tourist"), so there's nothing modern about it and there are certainly signs of age around the pool. However, once I got in the pool and discovered that the marble-tiled deck was also the floor of the pool, I was in instant love. It got even more exciting as I swam into what appeared to be a black hole (looking at the deep end wall from the shallow end), but as I got closer I discovered the walls were made of a deep brown tile with what appeared to be some very faint gold stripes or flakes throughout. When I got in the water, the typical SF Bay Area clouds were out in full force, but over my ~45 minute, ~2450 yard swim, the sun broke through. The pool changed appearances and shimmered differently through this change of sun vs. clouds. It was simply beautiful.

... but I still don't think I fully appreciated Ms. Morgan's contributions to aquatic architecture until last week, when a combination of a campus recruiting event at Cal and stupid hotel prices yet again encouraged me to stay in Berkeley. This time, I not only had the joy of immersing myself in another of her aquatic churches ...

.... I got to experience her architectural wonders in depth when I stayed overnight at the Berkeley City Club, a building that she originally designed and opened in 1930 as the Berkeley Women's City Club. While it was a wavy swim without lane ropes and only two other guys in with me at 5:30am, much like my swim at the Hearst Pool, I spent a good portion of the swim not focused on my effort, heart rate or speed, but on admiration for the design and workmanship:

  • The intricacy of the tiled lane lines on the bottom of the pool, instead of boring old solid-colored tile, contained inlaid golden sea creatures.

  • I spent more time doing backstroke than I normally would, the archways and ceiling providing an exceptional view and guideposts for straight swimming.

  • After my swim I walked around the deck to further admire the columns, windows and mosaic-tiles.

My only regret was swimming when it was dark outside, so I didn't get the full shimmering effect I got from the Hearst North Pool.

I'm not sure if Julia Morgan was a swimmer herself, but she sure built beautiful pools. Visit and swim in the ones you can, whenever you can.

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