A postcard showing the Bimini Baths, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
For centuries, those looking for healing of mental or physical ailments visited therapeutic spas and springs at such places as Bath, England, and Baden Baden in Germany. By the 1860s, Glen Ivy Hot Springs offered refreshing waters to Southern California residents. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles boasted a curative hot springs near Westlake Park, the Bimini Baths.
Discovered accidentally when an African American worker searching for oil struck a natural mineral springs 1,750 feet underground beneath marble three feet thick, the waters quickly became popular after Dr. David Edwards opened Bimini Baths on Dec. 31, 1902. Located remotely from downtown near Third and Vermont amid a eucalyptus grove, Bimini Baths was named after a Butterworth poem that described Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth. The Baths, the second largest on the West Coast after San Francisco’s Sutro Baths were housed in one building with three separate pools.
The Bimini Baths in the Los Angeles Herald.
Edwards’ spa featured green and white interiors filled with tropical plants, and contained three “plunges” or separate bath areas, one for women only, over 18,000 square feet. They were filled with 112-degree water that was changed every night. The Los Angeles Times called it “a new local wonder” in a Dec. 28, 1902, story. The potassium and soda solution of the water seemed to have curative benefits for those suffering from various health disorders.
Edwards spent $50,000 constructing his huge natatorium with a main pool 50 yards long and 2 1/2 to 10 feet deep, as well as two smaller pools. Upstairs, there were 50 individual rooms where people could bathe alone in tubs. Above the main pool was a balcony to sit 1,000, so that special aquatic shows could be held, as well as swimming competitions. Electric light illuminated the facilities, aided by an arching glass roof by day. A cafe adjoined the baths to provide refreshment.
The baths occupied only a small part of the 14 acres surrounding it, and Edwards proposed to build a park. By early January, Edwards announced intentions to build a Mission-style hotel of 50 to 100 rooms of the “choicest class,” along with constructing pavilions, lawns and tennis courts among the grounds. With nothing happening, W. T. Somes and Arthur G. Newton proposed spending $75,000 to build a 150 room “Mission-Style” hotel run by the the baths management in April 1904, but once again, nothing materialized.
Eli P. Clark and M. H. Sherman extended their trolley line from Hollywood and the downtown trolley line also stretched toward the facility, enabling even more guests to visit. More and more lines extended tentacles toward Third and Vermont, providing better transportation to boost ridership.
Disaster struck the evening of Nov. 8, 1905, when a fire devoured the building, as staff and guests rushed to save furnishings rather than the building. No fire plug existed anywhere in the vicinity, though Dr. Edwards had requested the city install one nearby. Unfortunately, the building was drastically underinsured, valued at $150,000 to $200,000 with only $50,000 insurance.
The Bimini Baths in Modern Sanitation.
Edwards hired architect Thornton Fitzhugh to draw up grander plans for a new Bimini Baths, quickly constructed and reopened Aug. 3, 1906, in a virtually similar Mission style. The new $250,000 building stretched 24 x 125 feet with individual pools for men, boys and women. Incandescent light once again illuminated facilities that contained 500 dressing rooms with sterilized suits and towels, valuables counter, a cafe, lunch counter, soda fountain, ladies’ parlor, roof garden and cigar stand. The 50-room hotel nearby promoted itself as “refined, cheerful, homelike and restful.” By 1907, surging crowds from all over the United States made it one of Los Angeles’ top tourist attractions.
Bertha Smith wrote a long article about the facility for the July 1907 issue of Modern Sanitation, describing it as a “peaceful place of luxury,” where those with blood and breathing problems could partake of its pain-relieving heat and medicinal qualities. Individuals could switch between tub rooms of hot and cold water, visit steam rooms, massage rooms, Turkish baths, or even manicurists and chiropodists. She called the waters “a velvet bath,” enveloping bathers in an almost oily softness that possessed a mild astringency. Drinking the water would clear the lungs, and sweating would help clear minds and pores. She stated that sodium carbonate and potassium chloride along with other minerals filled the waters.
In 1915, various publications like American Contractor and even Moving Picture World reported that W. E. Page of Kansas obtained a 20-year lease on the eight acres of Bimini Hot Springs, where he hoped to construct an open-air amusement park named Bimini Electric Park with a moving picture theater, and build additional elaborate baths and concessions, two 200-foot illuminated towers, and a luxury hotel among the grounds. Architect John J. Franenfelder drew up preliminary plans for the park, but none of the projects came to fruition.
Bimini Baths remained popular with upper middle visitors and Hollywood celebrities, as the business designed colorful lithographic brochures placed in various tourist destinations and train stations. 1920s brochures listed opening hours as 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Sundays at the State Board of Health certified facility. These booklets promoted three plunges along with tub bath rooms, Marinello Beauty Shoppe, hairdressing parlors with electric hair dryers and sun parlors for women. No one with colds, coughs, fever, or inflamed eyes could enter the pools, which were treated with chlorine, filtered through a circulating system, and changed four times daily.
Unfortunately, many people were injured or drowned over the years, either from poor swimming skill, being overcome by heat, or by hitting their head while diving.
Over time, attendance dropped as well, as wealthy citizens constructed their own swimming pools, the middle class visited city-run pools, and regular spa facilities began opening. Racist practices also decreased attendance at the Baths, as later owners prevented African Americans and Hispanics from entering. Protests flared.
By the early 1940s, the baths began advertising and promoting themselves on KFAC and later KFWB radio stations, with 13-15 week shows. The KFAC show featured interviews with the Southern Pacific Assn. of the Amateur Athletic Union coaches, swimmers, and officials. The KFWB show, called “The Talent Parade,” introduced a weekly amateur program.
Owners tried to operate as a dance hall, before shutting down in the late 1940s rather than admit people of color after stand-ins and other protests. On Feb. 2, 1951, Bimini Baths, consisting of the building and two acres, was auctioned off for $125,000 to Manny Feigenbaum and Associates after falling into bankruptcy. He attempted to run the building as a training center for fighters. Within a year, the facilities at 180 Bimini Place were auctioned once again, this time acquired by Frank Cohn of Chicago.
By 1956, the springs were covered over and an office building erected at the new address of 3421 W. Second St. A fire that year caused $7,000 damage for Zenith National Insurance, headquartered at the building. Within a few years, the site was a used car lot. In 1969, the Daily Racing Form constructed a $2-million building on the site.
While another hot springs exists in the area at a neighborhood spa, the original Bimini Baths introduced luxury spa and water treatments to Los Angeles residents looking for curative powers of medicinal waters.