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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

At Site of Former Baths, History Still Runs Deep

January 25, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Nestled in the concrete landscape of Koreatown, the new Bimini Slough Ecology Park offers a green playground for children and adults -- at the site of a former steamy wonderland.

The neighborhood, mere minutes west of downtown, once was a soggy wetland. But for half a century, the 104-degree natural hot springs of the old Bimini Baths turned the area into a popular part of town that eventually offered a bowling alley, a nightclub featuring Benny Goodman and competitive dancing during the Depression.

Although the steamy water from the thermal springs remains, the baths went bankrupt in 1951. Now the park, with its tiny man-made creekbed and restored stands of native plants, serves as a reminder of the days when the waters were regarded as Los Angeles' "Fountain of Youth."

At the end of the 19th century, a 45-acre marsh cut a wide swath west of downtown. Long before Palm Springs boasted of spas, Los Angeles residents flocked to Bimini Baths, the largest bathhouse among many that were built in Southern California around natural hot springs.

The baths were at the city's western outskirts, alongside the Bimini Slough, where a ravine stretched across Vermont Avenue between 1st Street and Wilshire Boulevard. The cavernous public bath, also known as Bimini Hot Springs, offered huge indoor -- and later outdoor -- "plunges," the term applied to public swimming pools.

Bimini Baths was owned and operated by David W. Edwards, a former dentist and insurance company president from Minneapolis. He named it after Bimini, a Bahamian island where legend says the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth.

Edwards arrived in Los Angeles in 1895. Five years later, he founded the Conservative Life Insurance Co. He sold it in 1906, when it merged with San Francisco's Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., which had moved to Los Angeles after the great quake.

In the meantime, Edwards dabbled in real estate and oil and gas exploration. The baths were created by chance when drillers looking for oil struck water instead -- 104-degree, sodium-rich water -- 1,750 feet below the surface.

From the discovery sprang the Bimini Water Co., which would supply early residents with water until city mains were installed in 1915. Already, hot springs were flourishing in Arrowhead, East Los Angeles, La Puente, Encino, San Pedro and Santa Fe Springs. Bimini prospered immediately.

Almost as soon as the first pool was filled in January 1903, tourists and Angelenos alike began showing up in long-legged swimsuits to splash on Bimini Place.

The complex would eventually cover 14 acres between what is now 2nd Street and White House Place.

It was built and decorated at a cost of $200,000, attracting individuals with everything from arthritis to backaches. Glasses of the water were favored by red-eyed men who found its sodium bicarbonate and other minerals soothing for a hangover.

Others found the waters "magical," including the popular Connecticut author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who often wintered in Los Angeles. She was an old friend of Edwards, who had tried his hand at poetry. Wilcox was especially known for her often-quoted poem "Solitude," which begins, "Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone."

Like many, she was content to soak in the soothing waters. "I used to be a good diver," she told a reporter in 1903, "but now the water gets in my ears and impairs my hearing, so I guess I will not attempt to do any high diving."

A year after he opened the baths, Edwards built the Bimini Hotel across the street. The "healing waters" were pumped to the hotel, as well as sold in bottles to guests. Today, this two-story brick building serves as headquarters for the Mary Lind Foundation, and the old ballroom as a dining room for recovering alcoholics.

On Dec. 4, 1905, a fire destroyed the original bathhouse. Edwards built an enclosed bathhouse on the same spot. Designed by architect Thornton Fitzhugh in a Mission-revival motif with Italian marble floors, it was a bigger and grander version of the original, with 500 dressing rooms, a 1,000-seat balcony, a water stage and three indoor swimming pools.

In 1915, plans were unveiled for a "Bimini Electric Amusement Park," to be illuminated for nighttime recreation. It never got off the drawing board; Edwards died in 1917.

New owners built an outdoor pool, which opened in 1921. A huge gurgling fountain at its center drew even larger crowds in the summertime. But the fountain was blamed for several drownings and other serious accidents and later removed.

From its beginning, Bimini was more than just a fancy swimming hole; it was a civic nucleus for health-seekers and sports enthusiasts. It's where young Angelenos who could afford a trolley ride and 25 cents admission plunged into aquatic sports, winning state and national swimming and diving competitions.

The Bimini Polo Team played against Redondo and Venice, as well as teams from the nearby Athletic Club and YMCA.

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