Dipping Into San Francisco’s History at the Site of the World’s Largest Swimming Pool

Every summer since they were five, my now nine and eleven-year-old daughters have attended a week or two of summer day camp at the San Francisco Zoo. As a result, every summer I learn all sorts of interesting animal facts, like: zebras are black with white stripes (and not the other way around), there have been no reported human fatalities from tarantula bites, and a group of rhinos is called a “crash.” But this summer, the most surprising piece of information I gleaned from my daughters had nothing to do with animals: at one time, my older daughter informed me as we pulled into the Zoo’s parking lot on a cold and foggy morning last week, this dreary expanse of oil-stained asphalt was the site of the world’s largest swimming pool.

After dropping the girls off at camp, I did a quick Google search in the car and confirmed that what my daughter had told me was indeed correct. Built in 1924 by eminent San Francisco banker and then Commissioner of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, Herbert Fleishhacker, this heated, saltwater pool was open to the public for nearly fifty years before closing in 1971 and becoming a parking lot in 2002.

At 1,000 feet long, 150 feet wide and 13 feet at its deepest, it was a pool so big that it could accommodate up to 10,000 swimmers and was patrolled by lifeguards in rowboats. While only a fraction of the size of the current Guinness Book of World Records holder — the 3,323 foot long, 20-acre pool at the San Alfonso del Mar resort in Chile — it was, in its day, the world’s largest swimming pool.

Intrigued, I left the cozy warmth of my car to take a closer look at all that remains of the Fleishhacker Pool, a set of three crumbling, ornate doorways standing at the bottom of a sandy hillside on the western edge of the Zoo parking lot. These were entrances to an elaborate, 450-foot long, Mediterranean Revival-style bath house, with changing areas on the ground floor and an upstairs restaurant overlooking both the ocean and the pool. A sign posted next to them includes a bit of historical background and a few black and white photos of the pool.

After the pool was closed, the once grande building unfortunately fell into a state of neglect and disrepair and was ultimately destroyed by a fire in 2012. The site where it stood is now occupied by two gray, metal sheds temporarily housing the Zoo’s new Coastal Conservation Center. Unveiled on World Ocean’s Day in June, this facility is used by the Zoo as a space to study and teach kids about environmental issues impacting the ocean and marine life.

As I walked back to my car, I tried to picture an enormous swimming pool in place of the parking lot and people, in their old-fashioned, 1920s bathing costumes, in place of the cars. Although I had seen the pictures proving that this place did in fact exist, the swirling fog made it difficult to imagine. The world’s largest swimming pool in a city famous for fog and freezing summers? What a crazy, impractical idea, really. But I nevertheless wished the Fleischhacker Pool, and all the fun and glamour it seemed to represent, were still there. Shivering, I got back into my car and drove home.