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Splashback

SoCal's Century-Long Love Affair With the Backyard Swimming Hole

June 02, 1996|SUSAN HEEGER

In his short story "The Swimmer," John Cheever sent a man stroking dreamily through his neighborhood via a network of backyard pools. The place wasn't L.A., but it could have been, considering how many swimming holes our city has. The first one, called the L.A. Natatorium, opened in 1888. Edgar Rice Burroughs, father of Tarzan, brought the concept to the San Fernando Valley in the early '20s, when he built a pool on his Tarzana ranch. At the time, pools were playthings of the rich--expensive, oversize rectangles with poured-concrete walls, flagstone decks and turquoise depths.

In the '50s, the magic of spray-on concrete (called gunite), reduced the price tag, and suddenly anyone could own a modest kidney-shaped affair for as little as $1,500. During the heyday of pool construction, which lasted through the '60s, Southland contractors were building several thousand every year. With the emergence of landscape architects in the '70s came the free-form custom "lakes" with black bottoms, rock edges and shaggy plantings. Then the fitness-crazed '80s brought us lap pools--long, lean and waist-deep--and swim spas, where you could buck an adjustable current and do your laps in less space. For those who wanted the feel of infinite space, designers introduced "horizon pools," built to look as if they flowed off the edge of a cliff. In these, as well as humbler models, diving boards were passe, and swimmers settled for shallow waters in which they could bat around a volleyball.

Today, automatic pool covers are the thing--for safety, tidiness and heat retention--as are boxy shapes and sparkling blues and greens. Pools are pricier, too--starting around $20,000--which, along with memories of the drought, has cut pool construction in Southern California to a mere few hundred a year. This doesn't mean we've lost our taste for a cool dip on a hot day. In fact, we appreciate it all the more.

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