Part of a continuing weekly series on Anchorage history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Anchorage was never destined to become the largest city in the state. In 1939, Anchorage’s population was only 3,495, roughly equal to Fairbanks and well behind Ketchikan and Juneau. The more than 3,000 soldiers that manned Fort Richardson, completed in 1941, were joined in town by thousands more civilian workers and their families. By 1950, the greater Anchorage population had exploded to more than 30,000, though only a little more than 11,000 lived within city limits.
The city’s shipping and transportation needs dwarfed the capabilities of Merrill Field. But construction of the international airport seemed to ruin what was then the city’s only swimming facility, Lake Spenard. Silt and waste from the airport were drained into the lake, polluting the water. In August 1951, Bob Atwood, Anchorage Daily Times editor, wrote, “Lake Spenard is apparently ruined permanently as far as bathing is concerned.” His solution was a public swimming pool. “Nature endowed the city with an excellent swimming facility,” said Atwood. “It has been ruined by man. Now man must replace it.”
Indoor pools in Anchorage were not a new idea. When Rogers Park lots were first publicly offered in 1948, developers promised a range of amenities they never delivered, including a community center, bowling alleys, and an indoor pool. In 1949, the Anchorage Women’s Club led an attempt for a civic center that would have included a swimming pool. Roy Norquist, the city’s first probation officer, thought the lack of a swimming pool contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Though Atwood claimed Anchorage was “in position to provide better public (swimming) facilities,” city planners were busy organizing an increasingly urban landscape. Water, sewers and electricity were more important than pools. As the 1950s progressed, public efforts to improve Anchorage’s public swimming options focused on area lakes. Inside Anchorage limits, city officials bought 97 acres of federal land surrounding Goose Lake in 1956 and opened its beach in 1959. Outside city limits, the Spenard Lions Club led an effort that slowly developed Jewel Lake, beginning in 1953.
On March 31, 1952, Edwin Suddock (1915-1986) announced the construction of a private, indoor swimming pool with an initial cost estimate of $40,000, about $400,000 in 2020. Suddock, a wholesale grocer and member of the Chamber of Commerce, and his wife Mary (1914-1981) were the leading advocates for what would become The Spa Inc. He was the business’ first chairman.
Charter memberships were offered for $200, or almost $2,000 in 2020 dollars. Membership allowed access for the member’s immediate family. In less than two hours, 35 memberships sold. Within a month, more than 200 sold. In May 1952, The Spa acquired the option on its future location at 1720 F Street, a stretch of hillside between West 16th and 17th Avenues, above what would become Valley of the Moon Park. The park itself, with its often misunderstood name, would not be developed until the 1960s.
The original plan called for a single, 30- by 40-foot pool, later increased to 30 by 60 feet. Chlorine and machinery were contracted from a Los Angeles firm. The construction was largely paid by memberships. When a children’s’ splash pool was added to facility plans, the maximum membership was increased to afford for the addition.
By February 1953, more than 300 memberships had been sold, near organizers’ target of 450. The Spa opened behind schedule in March 1953. The total cost of the expanded facility was $95,000, roughly $935,000 in 2020. The facility’s most striking feature was its south-facing wall of glass. Joyce Dillman, previously an aquatic ballet performer, was the Spa’s first lifeguard and instructor.
Through the summer of 1972, The Spa was the only swimming pool available to Anchorage civilians. The Fort Richardson field house, which included a pool, was built around the same time as The Spa. During its heyday, The Spa was a form of monoculture, a widely shared element of life in Anchorage. For two decades, if you wanted to swim in any season other than summer, you swam at The Spa. This shared experience unified a generation of Anchoragites.
After years of failed attempts, a public, indoor pool opened at West High School on June 19, 1972. The Spa’s swim teams disbanded, and membership began to decline. Some blamed the lack of advertising; others blamed the aging facility. The West High pool was larger (42 by 75 feet), cheaper, and didn’t require a membership. In 1975, 40 Spa members loaned $25,000, roughly $120,000 in 2020, to keep the facility open. There were only 219 active members at the time.
It is not clear when The Spa closed its doors for the last time. Failing businesses tend to disappear without fanfare. The Spa was open in 1976, but references to the facility dried up in 1977. It was listed in the November 1976 but not the December 1977 Greater Anchorage phone books. In 1978, the South Addition Community Council recommended the Municipality buy the property. In 1979, members met, seemingly for the last time, to discuss the sale of all remaining assets. The structure around the pool was torn down in 1983. New owner Hal Manning, who passed in 2019, built around the pool, the building known as the “country club” or “club house” to those with access.
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“$10,000 Loan Speeds Work on Spa.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 25, 1952, 9.
“Acquire Option on Land for Private Swimming Pool Site.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 6, 1952, 8.
Lu Liston Collection. Bob and Evangeline Atwood Alaska Resource Center, Anchorage Museum.
“Aquatic Pioneers.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 2, 1952, 4.
“Beautiful Spa Pool Will Open in March.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 30, 1953, 12.
“Former Aquatic Start Named Spa Swim Instructor.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 30, 1953, 12.
“Members’ Loans Keep Spa Afloat.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 8, 1975, 10.
“A Multi-Purpose Project.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 18, 1949, 2.
“Splash Pool is Added to Club’s Project.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 11, 1952, 16.
“Swimmers Keep Fit at The Spa.” Anchorage Times, April 1, 1976, 102.
“Swimming Pool is Needed.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 9, 1951, 2.
“Swimming Pool Plans Disclosed to Chamber.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 1, 1952, 12.