A derelict piece of Chicago’s architectural and social heritage is getting a second chance. Again. The Simon Baruch Bathhouse, tucked away on a residential stretch at 1911 West Cullerton Street in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood, may finally be converted into residences.
“Finally” because back in 2015 an application was filed with the city to change the zoning for the bathhouse from C1-2 Neighborhood Commercial to B2-2 Neighborhood Mixed-Use. It was approved by the city last September, but since then something magical happened at City Hall: The revision of the Transit Oriented Development rules.
We see “TOD” applications bobbing up in the paperwork eddies of the City Clerk’s office more and more these days, as developers use the new guidelines to change their building plans to suit 21st century lifestyles. Most commonly, to reduce or eliminate parking requirements since more and more people in Chicago and other cities are going car-less.
In the case of the Simon Baruch Bathhouse, what was approved last year was a change that would allow the building to be converted into two residential units. Now, thanks to TOD, the redeveloper is going for three residences, exactly the sort of thing the city’s density junkies like to see. The building is just a block away from the Damen station on the CTA’s Pink Line.
Those of you who aren’t fascinated with Chicago’s early 1900’s history, bathhouses were once a common fixture in most neighborhoods. There were once dozens of them scattered around the city’s residential neighborhoods, where they provided an essential service in an era very different than today: More people living in less space, no air conditioning, scarce indoor plumbing, and bathing and laundry done weekly or less. Remember in old TV shows like I Love Lucy and Happy Days when a woman wouldn’t go out with a man on Saturday night because that was the one night of the week when she planned to wash her hair? Yeah, that was real. You have to wonder how much of the legendary scent of Bubbly Creek was merely the combined olfactory assault from factories stuffed with manual laborers on a hot Chicago summer afternoon.
Chicago’s municipal bath system shouldn’t be confused with neighborhood social bathhouses. The city’s bathhouses were for bathing — men and women on different days — and that’s it. The last one, in West Town, closed in 1979. Russian and Turkish style bathhouses continued to operate around the city more as social hubs than opportunities to scrub the grit off the back of one’s neck.
The Simon Baruch bath was built in 1910, and is named after the doctor who is considered the father of the public bath movement. Baruch was a Prussian immigrant, then a Confederate soldier, then a doctor. He spent much of his life convincing public health officials in America’s large cities that clean water and basic hygiene were important to maintaining a healthy populace. This at a time when people were skeptical of the whole concept of “germs.”
Six years after Chicago’s Baruch bath was built, another institution, the Gads Hill Center, was built next door. It continues to provide neighborhood social services today.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the advent of public baths in Chicago and other American cities, you can download Marilyn Thornton Williams’ book Washing the “Great Unwashed” in its entirety from the Ohio State University Press.