Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hobart's abandoned aquatic house

There's something desolate about abandoned swimming pools. All the life has gone from them; they're quiet, empty and still.

All the life has long gone from the Dr Plaister Aquatic House in Hobart. Originally called the Hobart Tepid Baths, the 72-year-old art-deco complex has been boarded up and closed for nearly 10 years. The former Hobart icon lies derelict and abandoned. Instead of water, its pools are filled with graffiti, rubbish, murky puddles and discarded kickboards. Its windows are smashed; barbed wire fences keep visitors out. 

The closure of the Department of Education's swimming program at the pool seems to have marked the end of the Dr Plaister Aquatic Centre. The 1997 opening of the Hobart Aquatic Centre where swimmers could ''escape to a sub-tropical day even during Hobart's coldest months' probably added to its demise.

When the Governor of Tasmania, Sir Ernest Clark officially opened the Hobart Tepid Baths on 10 November 1938 they were described as an adornment and a blessing to the city. The heated centre allowed locals to swim all year round, and it was hoped a compulsory swimming program for Tasmanian children would follow. 

While the baths went into liquidation soon after they were opened, the Department of Education's purchase of the pool in 1948 was the making of the place.  As well as persuading the Department to buy the pool, Doug Plaister, a leading local swimmer and water safety educator convinced the education authorities to introduce a swimming program to the school curriculum. This was the start of the Learn-to-Swim program which was subsequently introduced to schools across Australia.

By the late 1940s the complex now known as Amateur House, had become the centre for swimming in Tasmania. Over the years thousands of children learnt to swim at the 55-yard pool. 

When a group of art interventionists took over the pool for One Night Only in March 2009, reviewer Bec Tudor said the opportunity to lawfully enter 212 Collins Street was a big drawcard. "Whether intrigued by the idea of an outdoor pool in Hobart, curious about what lay behind the boarded-up facade, or a survivor of its infamous stick-wielding swim instructor, everybody knows this site and seems to hold a personal stake in it," Bec said.

Who knows who the 'stick-wielding instructor' was? One name that is synonymous with the place is Doug Plaister. The Mayor of Hobart from 1976 to 1984, Doug Plaister ran the swimming program at the pool and lived on site for a period of time. In 1991 the complex was renamed Dr Plaister Aquatic House in his honour.

While many Hobartians hoped the site would be restored to its former glory, its days as a swimming centre are over.  In the coming months it will be redeveloped into a four-level office and apartment complex.  The facade of the Eric Round-designed building with its distinctive brickwork, is the only part that will be retained.  When the bulldozers finally move in, it will be the end of an era for this Hobart institution.