California Popularized the Backyard Pool

Backyard pools came to define suburbia during the 1950s, thanks to cheaper and faster ways to build them, and a desire for outdoor living. Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts

By the mid-20th century, the backyard suburban pool had arrived – big time, and especially in California. Thanks to new technology and the lure of the indoor-outdoor lifestyle, backyard pools were suddenly in the reach of all. To learn about how and why this came to pass, and how architects, landscape architects, and others have turned many backyard pools into things of beauty, read ‘Splash’ in the new summer '19 CA-Modern magazine.

Then slip on a swimsuit, celebrate warm, summer weather – and get wet.

Joe Eichler thought deeply about what newcomers to suburban living needed in their homes, providing extra bedrooms and baths, built-in kitchen appliances and more. But he didn’t build swimming pools alongside his tract homes.

Still, Joe understood the appeal. When he had his own modern home designed for him by his team of architects, Anshen and Allen, he made sure to include a pool that filled much of the backyard and that was mere steps from the living room and bedroom that gazed out on it.

Joe Eichler made sure that when Anshen and Allen designed a home for him and his family in 1951, it included this swimming pool. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Recreational pools alongside homes have been around since the Pharoahs. They grew popular in California during the Golden Age of Hollywood, with well known, architecturally distinctive pools owned by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and of course by William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, where he had both indoor and outdoor pools.

But it wasn’t until the development of spray-on gunite in the 1940s that a mass market for backyard pools became possible.

At the start of the 1940s, California pool builder Paddock Engineering Co., which pioneered the material’s use, was bragging that “our improved methods of construction have really brought swimming pools within reach of everybody.”

It was no lie.

“By the mid-1950s, the nation seemed in the grip of swimming pool fever,” Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at Huntington Library, wrote.

'House Beautiful' helped publicize one of the most iconic modern pools, in the Donnell Garden in Sonoma County.

“House Beautiful [magazine] articulated a vision of the pool as a recreational island sited to minimize the outside world of traffic, neighbors, and noise in order to maximize privacy and entertainment value,” she wrote.

Watts continued, “The recreational oasis as seen in magazines, with its concrete, Polynesian decorations, inflatable rafts, water toys, and plenty of food and drink besides, seemed to offer the very best of suburban living.”

“When they first became popular in California, they made an enormous transformation in what people considered the family house,” says Annie Kelly, co-author with her husband, photographer Tim Street-Porter, of the new book, ‘Splash: The Art of the Swimming Pool.’

“The average house suddenly became a resort, a place where you could recreate,” Kelly says. “To have a swimming pool was really like bringing a vacation into your house. The prices got so low, developers could include them in their projects.”

Kelly says both she and Tim love to swim.

In 'Splash,' Kelly and Street-Porter show off beautiful pool designs ranging from modern to traditional to exotic, and from California to Mexico, France, Bali, and beyond. Surprisingly enough, Kelly says, when the prolific writing-photo duo began researching topics for their next book, they discovered little in the way of swimming pool competition.

Photos of Pierre Koenig's Stahl house, a Case Study house with a pool, are included in the book 'Splash.' Photo by Tim Street-Porter

They also made sure to get a little action into their photos – though most show pools that are not populated by swimmers.

The action shot was taken at the home of a theatrical producer, and one of the guests was a Cirque du Soleil performer. “He would obligingly jump into the pool for us,” she said. “Getting the splash was the exciting part, because pools just generally sit there.”

Ah, but there can be something beautiful in blue placidity.

Among the many architects who pioneered the personal swimming pool as architectural icon were Richard Neutra, who designed modern pools integrated with modern homes as long ago as the 1920s.

Another was John Lautner, the great Southern California modernist. Working with landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, he designed what seems to be the first infinity-edge pool, where the water seems to keep flowing from the pool and directly into the  landscape beyond.

Richard Neutra's Lovell Health House in Los Angeles featured a cantilevered pool that was built into the structure of the house. Julius Shulman (© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Several of the Case Study houses designed by such Los Angeles architects as Pierre Koenig also featured iconic pools that were widely photographed and admired.

Another of the most attention-grabbing postwar pools was designed by the famous landscape architect Thomas Church as part of a residential garden in Sonoma County with a view towards San Pablo Bay.

Widely publicized, this kidney-shaped turquoise paradise in what is today the Carneros wine country, evoked the perfect image of sybaritic California. The pool, which was shown on the cover of a 1948 'House Beautiful' magazine, has been called “an iconic symbol of post-War modernist design and the 1950s California good life.” In the center is another curvaceous beauty, a sculpture of what seems to be an abstract reclining nude by Adaline Kent.

“Thomas Church's Donnell garden of 1948 immortalized the kidney as the archetypical Californian pool shape,” Marc Treib and Dorothée Imbert wrote on their book Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living.’ They added, “… the design captured the imagination of readers and designers, nationally and internationally, as the epitome of a modern setting for outdoor living.”

For more on swimming pools as artistic and lifestyle statements, ‘Splash’ into our sneak preview of the new summer '19 CA-Modern magazine.

Keep in touch with the Eichler Network. SUBSCRIBE to our free e-newsletter