Historical Markers
Wayne Natatorium Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Wayne Natatorium

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Willow Ave & Radnor Street Rd. at Cowan Park, Wayne

Dedication Date:
October 17, 2010

Behind the Marker

Photograph of the Office Clubhouse and at the Wayne Natatorium, Wayne, PA, 1897
Office Clubhouse, Wayne Natatorium, Wayne, PA, 1897.
For centuries Pennsylvanians, like other Americans, swam for pleasure in lakes, rivers, and other natural water sources. An avid swimmer all his life, Benjamin Franklin when young invented a pair of marker swimming fins for his hands. In the 1800s, more and more Americans embraced swimming as physical recreation, and American cities, starting in the 1860s, began to built “swimming pools” to improve public health and provide working men without indoor plumbing a means to clean themselves.
Program Cover for the "Third Annual Swimming Championships of the Atlantic Association of the U.S.," held at the Wayne Natatorium, Wayne, PA, August 24, 1895.

The appeal of enclosed and controlled pools of water quickly spread. To attract homebuyers to railroad suburbs emerging on the edge of cities, real estate developers offered a wide range of amenities, including hotels, country clubs, golf courses, and swimming pools, including the Wayne Natatorium, which opened in 1895.
Man doing a handstand on a diving board, Wayne Natatorium, Wayne, PA, 1897
Man on Diving Board, Wayne Natatorium, Wayne, PA, 1897

In 1880 banker A.J. Drexel and his partner newspaper publisher G.W. Childs bought land about fourteen miles west of Philadelphia along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad to build Wayne Estate, a “town built by design, and provided at the start with all the conveniences to which residents of cities are accustomed.” The new development included “beauty and advantages” for discriminating home owners including its own electrical plant, broad streets, and a reservoir to supply pure spring water that was surrounded by a promenade, eating place, and rustic seats. The town of Wayne also attracted summer visitors who lodged at the Bellevue Hotel, opened in 1881. In 1895, local businessmen John P. Wood, Richards H. Johnson, Christopher Fallon, and Julius Bailey incorporated the Wayne Natatorium Association, then issued stock to purchase Kelly’s Dam, a popular spring-fed swimming hole on Gulph Creek, and to transform it into the largest outdoor swimming pool in the country.
Photograph of swimming coach George Kistler in front of of Weightman Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 1897.
George Kistler in front of of Weightman Hall, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,...

To appeal to Wayne’s well-to-do residents and summer visitors the Association hired local architect Francis Albert Gugert to design a swim club that would be open to women as well as men. On one end of a massive 100-by-550 foot pool, Gugert placed a clubhouse with ladies’ changing rooms on the first floor and offices above. He surrounded the pool with a wooden walkway that had observation bleachers on one side and a men’s changing room building halfway down the other, and enclosed the whole complex inside a tall privacy fence. The club offered yearly memberships for twenty-five dollars a year. One could also purchase a daily ticket to swim in what its promoters called “the finest artificial swimming pool in the United States.”
In the late 1800s male competitive swimming clubs were springing up around the United States. One of the earliest was the National Swimming Association of Philadelphia (N.S.A.), organized in 1893. To provide swimming instructors for their patrons, the Wayne Natatorium Board of Directors engaged Charles Holroyd, an N.S.A. instructor who “guarantee[d] to learn any person with whom I make arrangements with, to Swim Sufficiently to take care of themselves, and to impart to them sufficient knowledge of the Advanced stages of Swimming and Floating that will warrant them to become marker proficient by practice.” At the grand opening in July of 1895, competitive swimmers from the N.S.A, the New York Athletic Club, and the University of Pennsylvania exhibited their skills to a large crowd.
Postcard of the Public Bathing Pool in Erie, PA, circa 1914.
Public Bathing Pool, Erie, PA, circa 1914.

The Wayne Natatorium continued to host swimming demonstrations and competitions in the years that followed, including the Atlantic Association Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) Championships in 1895-96 and N.S.A. Championships in 1896. Following Holroyd’s departure the Natatorium hired world champion miler George Kistler to teach swimming and run competitions at Wayne.
In winter the Directors transformed the Natatorium into a “skating club of the most pleasant description,” where opportunities to skate, so boasted its directors, made Wayne “most marker envied by the less enterprising towns.”
Despite its success, however, the Wayne Natatorium closed in 1903, just eight years after it opened. In the early 1900s a drought and wells drilled by the Wayne Water Works lowered the aquifer that fed the Natatorium’s natural springs, and new summer sports, including bicycling, cut into the pool’s attendance. The popularity of swimming, however, would continue to grow throughout the nation, as did the number of private and public swimming pools.
Back to Top