Sometimes knowing the story behind a building reveals the beauty:
"I Feel Him Here"
Nathaniel Kahn Returns to His Father's Restored Bath House
By Eric Wills | Online Only | Dec. 6, 2010
Eight years ago, Anne Tyng returned to the Bath House in Ewing, N.J., a modest concrete-block building that she had helped her lover and fellow architect, Louis Kahn, design nearly a half-century earlier. Built for the Trenton Jewish Community Center to give pool-going members a place to shower and change, the structure, at first glance, appears to be nothing more than a low-slung series of four square pavilions. But the commission marked a seminal moment in Kahn's career, launching him on a new trajectory that would win him acclaim as one of the finest architects of the second half of the 20th century.
As Tyng discovered, although the Bath House remained in use, it exuded an air of despair and loneliness, its front door boarded up, its walls mold-covered and crumbling. Tyng, then 82 years old, had come with Kahn's son, Nathaniel, who was making a documentary about his late father. As he filmed, Tyng wandered inside the men's locker room, crowded with stacks of plastic deck chairs. "It's terrible; it's just such a shame," she said, gazing upon the neglect.
The scene made for compelling filmmaking: Tyng's disappointment gradually gave way to remembrances of her partnership with Kahn, and his yearning to design a significant building that would speak to the potential of Modern architecture. But the footage also raised a question: How could such an important building in Kahn's career, and in the history of midcentury architecture, end up forgotten?
On a windswept Saturday afternoon several weeks ago, Nathaniel Kahn returned to the Bath House with his two half-sisters and a busload of architecture enthusiasts from a Philadelphia club. They had come to see the nearly finished $2.1 million restoration of the site, inspired in part by Kahn’s documentary, "My Architect," which was nominated for an Academy Award and helped popularize his father’s career. The gathering proved part family reunion, part architecture tour, part graduate seminar in historic preservation that explained just how, exactly, local officials had managed to save the Bath House from potential demolition.
Even though international architects have flocked to the Bath House over the years, to study how Kahn, on a modest budget and with ordinary materials, managed to create such an influential design, the building does not elicit universal praise. ("This is one of the biggest jokes pulled off on the public in years," an anonymous online commentator wrote in response to a recent NJ.com story about the restoration.) Which helps explain why Sue Ann Kahn, Louis' oldest daughter, said this as she studied the site from a distance: "I was thinking for so long it would never happen. I think it's a miracle the Bath House was restored."
The Bath House's Origins
Louis Kahn was just a few months removed from the first significant project of his career, the Yale Art Gallery, when he secured the commission from the Trenton Jewish Community Center in 1954. Because the center's members were increasingly leaving inner city Trenton, its board of directors decided to build a new complex on 47 acres in the suburbs of nearby Ewing. Kahn was retained to design the entire complex, including the main community building, but only the Bath House and a day camp site he designed were constructed. In part because of the uncertainty about what, exactly, the center's leaders wanted, the death of one of Kahn's most vocal supporters on the board, and his own innovative (and sometimes uncompromising) vision, he was replaced mid-project by a local architect.
But not before he managed to establish a confident new direction for his career—and for Modern architecture. Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe had recently designed Glass House and Farnsworth House, respectively; Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House had just risen on Park Avenue in New York. All were International Style-inspired tributes to steel and glass.
Between 1949 and 1951, Kahn had visited Italy, Greece, Israel, and Egypt during his stint as resident architect of the American Academy in Rome, and, inspired by the ancient ruins he had toured, he began work on the Bath House. He designed four pavilions in the shape of a Greek cross, with an open-air central atrium. The design evoked classical forms, and his choice of concrete block as the main building material stood in sharp contrast to the glassy machine aesthetic of the International Style. Kahn "showed it was possible to have flowing space and mass," writes Susan G. Solomon in Louis I. Kahn's Trenton Jewish Community Center.
In one of his most elegant strokes, Kahn designed floating pyramidal roofs that stopped short of the walls in the locker rooms, leaving a gap that offered views of the sky and trees and let in natural light, but that also obviated the need for an HVAC system because air moved freely through the building. The gap creates the wonderfully paradoxical sensation of being simultaneously inside and out: One feels secure within the concrete-block walls, yet also part of nature.
In essence, Solomon writes, the Bath House represented an amalgam of Kahn's classical training and his modern ideas. Many of the architect's later designs, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Richards Medical Research Lab in Philadelphia, directly illustrate his philosophy that coalesced as he worked on the Trenton commission. As Kahn told The New York Times, "The world may have discovered me when I designed the Richards, but I discovered myself when I designed that little concrete Bath House in Trenton."
Despite Solomon's success in getting the Bath House listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the Jewish Community Center threatened to demolish Kahn's day camp site in 1996, prompting questions about the survival of the Bath House itself. The center's leaders eventually used grant money to create a preservation plan for the site, but with more and more of their members leaving Ewing, they finally decided to sell.
At the time, Ewing Township was looking to build a new community and senior center. And Mercer County officials were looking to make use of their Open Space Trust Fund. Voters, after a contentious debate, had just passed a referendum that allowed the fund to be used for historic preservation projects in conjunction with land conservation. And the Bath House appeared an ideal project. In 2006, the county purchased the property for $8.1 million, financed almost entirely by the trust fund, and transferred ownership to Ewing Township after protecting the site with historic preservation and conservation easements, to prevent demolition of the Bath House or new development on the site.
At first, some county officials were underwhelmed by the building. "It's a bunch of cinder blocks," Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes admits thinking when the Bath House project first crossed his desk. After he read Solomon's book, however, he began to understand the significance of the site, eventually becoming a leading advocate: "I'll be long gone from Mercer County, and people are still going to be coming to see this building."
Despite the political support from such figures as Ewing Mayor Jack Ball, who has lauded the site as "Ewing's national treasure," some county residents still disapprove of the project. Donna Lewis, Mercer County's planning director, tells people to rent Nathaniel Kahn's film, which brings to life the man behind the buildings. "Watch the movie, and you will get it," Lewis says.
A Son's Return
On the recent Saturday when Nathaniel Kahn returned to the site, the Bath House little resembled the decrepit near-ruin he had filmed eight years earlier. Kahn, dressed in khaki pants and a blue sweater, and the other attendees took in the newly restored structure. They admired the abstract mural featuring fish- and wave-shaped forms, reputedly painted by Louis Kahn and another architect, and long covered over by eight layers of paint, that once again decorated the wall next to the main entrance. They noted that the pyramidal roofs, redone years ago in a gray material, were returned to their original black. They studied the refurbished concrete block walls, the sections beyond repair rebuilt with new blocks made from the same Delaware River stone as the originals, the masons instructed to replicate the sloppy and uneven mortar joints that Kahn favored. And they toured the locker rooms, with their new shower dividers no longer tile but shiny granite, chosen for its durability.
Michael Mills, a partner at the Princeton-based architecture firm Farewell Mills Gatsch LLC, led the project, which included the restoration of the day camp site and the construction of a new snack bar. Kahn and his half-sisters gathered around the architect after the conclusion of the tour. "You have done a fantastic service to our father's legacy," Kahn told Mills, as tears welled in the architect's eyes.
The discussion turned to the wider significance of the project in the context of preserving the legacy of Kahn, who built relatively few buildings in the United States. A group of leading academics and architects was dismayed to hear over the summer about the demolition of Kahn's original entryway of the Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, N.Y. They criticized temple leaders for not engaging the wider community of Kahn scholars before starting demolition as part of a plan to build an addition onto the existing structure.
In contrast, before embarking on the Bath House project, Mills spoke to Anne Tyng about the intent behind the original design (one of the conveniences in preserving Midcentury buildings is that many of the original architects are still alive). One question Mills asked her: Why didn't the Bath House have gutters? Tyng spoke, he says, of the "ritualistic idea of the water washing over the walls," though the walls didn't hold up well over time to the moisture. Workers have now installed gutters in a few strategic spots, concealing them as much as possible under the roofline.
One topic especially loomed large: the landscape plan for the site. Workers installed two rows of trees in front of the Bath House and have done other landscaping work, but nothing approaching the master plan that Kahn designed. That plan was never executed, but Heritage Landscapes LLC, relying on Kahn's original drawings, has drafted new renderings that would help achieve a more complete realization of the architect's vision. But the county and township lack the funds—about $500,000—to implement those drawings, and to establish a public green space adjacent to the Bath House that would help create a formal passageway between it and the community center building. Fronted by a vast expanse of parking-lot blacktop, the Bath House now seems insignificant from afar, an accidental imposition on the landscape that lacks proper context.
But the prevailing sentiment was unabashed enthusiasm, for the enlightened local officials who had recognized the historic import of the building, for how the restoration of the Bath House might signal a growing appreciation for Modernist architecture, for the revival of a key work in Kahn's career. Said Nathaniel Kahn of the project: "It will stand as an extraordinarily important example of what can be done with limited resources and enormous attention and care."
By now the sun appeared low on the horizon, and Kahn stood in the central atrium of the Bath House, his back to the stairs leading to the pool. Shadows fell obliquely across the walls. The site exuded a surprising sense of timeless presence given its construction a mere half century ago from so simple a material as concrete block.
"I am in love with this building," Kahn said. "I so feel my father's assuredness here. You know, the Yale Gallery of Art is such a wonderful building, but it's several different things going on. There's uncertainty. There's no uncertainty here. Here he's absolutely convinced he's doing the right thing. I feel him here. I feel the aliveness of his mind, and his excitement at being able to figure something like this out."
Kahn lingered for a few minutes, then slowly walked to the parking lot with the other remaining day-trippers, leaving the Bath House behind once again, this time secure with the knowledge that the building will survive. Not as a museum piece, but as a living structure, where locals will flock come Memorial Day, and fill the walls with the sounds of summer.