Modern swimmers might be slightly grossed-out to learn that Victorian bath houses weren’t constructed only for popular enjoyment or communal exercise. They were built to literally keep people clean. Most of the factory workers that flooded into cities during the turn of the century didn’t have bathing facilities at home. Fear of spreading diseases coupled with an enthusiasm for public projects lead to the construction of magnificent bathing facilities. Most of the Victorian baths on this list were built to be segregated by gender and class. And although they do clearly show the inequalities of the time, they also display an incredible pride in design and ornamentation that has been unmatched in public buildings since.

Even though these bath houses were the pride of their city when built, chronic under funding led to their current disrepair. Deemed too expensive to fix, the bath houses were left derelict. Some succumbed to the elements, while others are still hanging on with fervent community support. Urban explorers have long been fascinated by the distinct experience of exploring the grandeur of Victorian baths. If you decide to see them in person, best of luck! But as always, be careful.

1. Victoria Baths – Manchester, UK

Image: Metaltax/Flickr

Image: pit-yacker/Flickr

When the Victoria Baths complex was built in 1906 no expense was spared on this Edwardian masterpiece. Red brick terracotta tiles cover the exterior, and the interior was nicknamed the “Cathedral of Swimming”. Made up of an incredible first class men’s swimming pool, a second class men’s pool, Turkish Baths, and a smaller women’s pool, Victoria Baths was the height of technological style when it was built. Both the Turkish Baths and the pools were controlled by a state-of-the-art subterranean machine room, and the interior was decorated with gorgeous tile mosaics and water-themed stained glass.

Unfortunately improper upkeep lead to Victoria Bath’s closure in 1993. Since then, many groups have been working to reopen the facilities with proper repairs. Although it was listed as a Grade II historical building and won first place in an “American Idol”-style show for restoring buildings in danger, it is yet to be restored. But unlike many derelict places, this one is still open for visitors even after being abandoned. Once a month guided tours are led through the “Cathedral of Swimming” and cultural events are scheduled regularly in the space.

Image: dkscully/Flickr

2. Fleishhacker Pool – San Francisco, CA

Image: San Francisco Days

Once the largest heated salt water pool in the world, the Fleishhacker Municipal Swimming pool could hold 6,500,000 gallons of water and measured 1000 feet by 160 feet. It was a gift to the city of San Francisco by Herbert Fleishhacker, city Parks Commissioner. When it opened in 1925 to the public, entrance to the pool cost 25 cents for adults – including the rental of a bathing suit and a towel, use of the entire pool grounds, and a dressing room with showers. Although it was initially popular, the pool’s chilly 72 degree water (which was pumped straight in from the Pacific Ocean) made it hard to enjoy swimming on most foggy San Francisco days.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Even with American soldiers using the pool for military training during WWII, Fleishhacker was still chronically under funded. The pool’s salt water pump was destroyed beyond repair in 1971 by a storm, and San Francisco decided to turn the salt water pool into a fresh water pool that year to reduce costs. This was the final blow to Fleishhacker. The freshwater pool became contaminated with algea, and the entire complex was closed that year, never to be reopened.

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Today the pool belongs to the San Francisco Zoo. Unable to obtain the necessary funds to turn it into a parking lot like previously planned, it is now completely derelict and occupied by homeless people. The pool itself was filled in with rubble and top soil, and the rest of the pool complex is so overrun it’s almost unrecognizable from it’s original splendor. We’ve heard exploration of this site is relatively easy, but many urban explorers have run into unsavory “residents” of  Fleishhacker. If you go, bring some friends.

Image: Matt_Roe/Flickr

3. Harpurhey Swimming Baths – Manchester, UK

Harpurhey was built in 1909 by Manchester’s first City Architect, Henry Price, who also designed Victoria Baths. Harpurhey is less over-the-top than Victoria, although still incredible in its own right. In use until 2001, serious defects were found in the bath’s walls and plumbing.  Shoddy repairs done years earlier led to the baths becoming damaged beyond repair and the building was closed immediately.

Although Harpurhey Bath’s future looked dim, there is still hope for the incredible building to live again. Plans have been approved to convert the baths to become part of Manchester’s City College with the first-class male pool turning into an exhibition space.

4. Moseley Road Baths – Birmingham, UK

Image: tim ellis/Flickr

Image: ahisgett/Flickr

Moseley may look similar to other baths on this list, but it has some incredible features not found in any other UK baths in existence. Inside the bathing complex is the only complete set of pre-war “slipper” baths – bathtubs where people could pay to actually bathe if they didn’t have a bath tub in their own home. It also has a gorgeous, lavishly decorated interior and terracotta exterior.

Image: tim ellis/Flickr

Image: tim ellis/Flickr

Built in 1907, Moseley Road Baths are unquestionably one of Birmingham’s most beloved treasures. After years of neglect, the baths closed in 2007, and various groups have been working diligently to get Moseley the funding it needs to reopen. In the meantime, Friends of Moseley Road Baths have put together a virtual tour if you can’t (or won’t!) explore it yourself.

5. Sutro Baths – San Francisco, California


Sutro Baths opened in 1896 as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool on a small beach in (what was then) a remote part of San Francisco. Built by former mayor Adolph Sutro, the baths were an incredible complex – 100,000 panes of glass covered the roof and inside were 6 salt water pools and one fresh water one, all ranging in temperatures. A technologically advanced system allowed the water in the entire baths to be recycled every 5 hours. When the tide came in, the sea water would flow in, and during low tides turbines pumped fresh ocean water into the pools. Trampolines, flying rings, slides and diving boards encircled the pools, ensuring all swimmers made a “splash” when getting in the water.

Image: goodwillstacy/Flickr

Image: AGrinberg/Flickr

In addition to the baths themselves Adolph Sutro moved his incredible collection of artifacts from his travels into Sutro Baths. Everything from stuffed jaguars to fine art to totem poles were housed in a special museum, open to the 10,000 bathers the baths could accommodate daily.

Sadly, like so many other baths, high operating costs led to the complex becoming rundown, and eventually closing in1966. While Sutro Baths was being demolished, a fire broke out – destroying the once-grand baths almost completely. Today all that’s left are concrete walls and  set of stairs and passageways. Since the setting of the baths were literally on the beach, strong tides make it unsafe to explore the ruins, but what’s left can still be seen from above.

Image: kern.justin/Flickr

What incredible abandoned bath houses did we leave off the list?

Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide