Like most people I know who have any notion of the history of the Warm Springs Plunge building, I spent the last decade believing that the space at 840 North Beck Street had essentially been abandoned, except as a space for squatters and storage for the city. These were partly true, though it turns out that part of the building has been in use continuously since 1984. I only discovered this while attending one of the planning meetings for improvements at Warm Springs Park. Towards the end of the meeting, one of the hosts noted that the model train club in the basement of the old Children’s Museum would like to invite everyone to their open house the following Saturday. I was clearly not the only person in the audience that was surprised to hear this, but I tracked down the club’s representative in attendance and got some more information. The Golden Spike Train Club of Utah occupies a good portion of the building’s basement and has been there since they relocated from the State Fairpark at the invitation of the Children’s Museum in 1984. This group of several dozen or so members have maintained a presence in the building all these years despite the lack of heat and other amenities in the space (though they do at least have power). For years after the museum relocated, the group paid no rent and the city had largely forgotten about them recently when a city employee stumbled into one of their meetings and broached the subject of reinstating a lease with his superiors. The group has now formed a non-profit organization to help fundraise and increase membership to cover the somewhat unexpected costs imposed by the city. Their representative at the meeting reiterated his interest in getting more community members involved in their activities and repeated his invitation for their Saturday open house.
I have had a vague awareness of model train hobbyists for many years. There was a model train shop adjacent to the store my mother owned while I was growing up. Friends’ fathers sectioned off parts of basements for this purpose. However, unlike many railroad employees who enjoy the hobby, neither my father nor grandfather had much interest, probably from a complete disinterest in allowing work to come home with them as well. So, my knowledge of trains and their miniaturization remains somewhat limited. Nonetheless, what I found in basement of the plunge building astounded me. Beneath the abandoned pools and crumbling plaster was an incredibly intricate world decades in the making. Occupying the majority of three or four rooms on the south end of the building is an enormous mountainous layout measuring 20′ by 50’ with a 4′ viewing aisle around 2 outside walls. The design “follows a ‘Mountain Railroad’ theme representing the major railroads in Utah and surrounding areas…[and] highlight[ing] UPRR in Weber and Echo Canyons, D&RGW in Soldier Summit and American Fork Canyon, and SP in Donner Pass. The railroad currently boasts 27 scale miles of mainline, with an additional 16 scale miles devoted to Narrow Gauge. The layout also sports a replica of UP’s Ogden round house, 500+ car yard, engine and car repair facilities, Passenger Station and Yard, Intermodal yard etc. (goldenspiketrainclub.org). The level of detail built atop a simple plywood and lumber frame was remarkable and it was uncanny to watch the “conductors,” who now control the trains almost entirely via apps on their cell phones, lumber around inside this strange fantasy world like giants, delicately adjusting a piece here or switching a track there.
I spoke again with the member I had met at the meeting and he was excited to see a good turnout. It became readily apparent that he was concerned about the future of the club and the future of the building. While the historic registry protects the building itself, there would be little to stop a new tenant from forcing them out. Likewise, the rent imposed by the city seems a bit excessive given the state of the space and its lack of basic amenities. But it’s almost impossible to imagine the deconstruction and relocation of this world. After so many years, the model world seems to have embedded itself in the building as much as the cavernous pools. Given its proximity to the transportation corridor and the historic rail yards of the city, the location makes perfect sense – a kind of wonderland version of the grittier, rumbling world just a few feet above them.
On a snowy morning about a week after visiting the model train club, I am standing outside the old Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge building. Across the street, an endless stream of tanker trucks and dump trucks file along to refineries and gravel pits. But on the east side of the road, all is silent. There are no other people in Warm Springs Park, though I notice a small bit of scree tumble off a ridge just below Victory Road. It is caused by a homeless man, nearly hidden in the trees by gray tarps, shifting slightly in his tent. On the road above, a minor traffic jam forms as cars file towards the State Capitol in the midst of a particularly bleak legislative session. It is just cold enough for small trails of steam to be seen above the springs. But the last few weeks have been unseasonably warm, warm enough that the weeks that traditionally make up the gravest part of the inversion season in the valley have been obliterated by blue, sunny skies. The endless fumes pumped out by the nearby refineries remain unseen and unremembered by legislators who, a few days later, will toss one clean air bill in the garbage after yet another uninventive bit of lobbying by petroleum and manufacturers associations while another will be neutered by conservative legislators in their relentless and short-sighted kowtowing to hypocritical pleas for small government.
The timelessness of the Plunge building’s Mission-style architecture, a stark contrast to the cheap, frame architecture that abounded along Beck to house railroad employees and other blue-collar workers, is betrayed by a crumbling roof and boarded-up windows that are impossible not to notice. Small serifs of the building’s painted sign remain on its north end while everywhere else layers of paint peel off around slowly-progressing cracks in the adobe facade. It is an effect aggravated all the more by the fact that the city, after boarding up all the windows, gave the okay to several local lacrosse teams to practice against the walls, or at least neglected to prevent them from doing so. Pigeon and rat feces dot the entries and the balconies on the upper level. The grass has given way to weeds and the trees near the entryways have gone wild, hiding the porches and doorways from view like some kind of southwestern Grey Gardens.
I’m there to meet with an employee of the Property Management division of Salt Lake City Corporation, who has reluctantly agreed to allow me into the building for 45 minutes or so. In our prior emails, he made it clear that they receive numerous requests for access, which are systematically denied owing to liability and safety concerns, as well as wasted time for their staff. With the exception of those with serious proposals for future use of the building – a notion made largely unfeasible by the building’s derelict state, combined with its presence on the Historic Registry, which makes renovations a tightly-regulated process – no one is admitted into the building save maintenance staff and the model train club members whose venture has occupied the basement for over thirty-odd years, persevering in spite of the basement’s lack of heat and other amenities. In our correspondence, I made a point of outlining my project, emphasizing the phrase “graduate student” as much as possible, as if it infers some higher level of responsibility or common sense, and outlining my personal and professional ties to the site. Whatever it was I said, it seems to have allayed his fears, as he agreed to meet me the following day.
Unbeknownst to me, the city employee is running late. However, there is a city truck idling in the middle of the north parking lot, so I approach his vehicle assuming the driver is my appointment. The mix of suspicion and annoyance on the man’s face as I near his window is palpable. It occurs to me at that moment that I have temporarily forgotten where I am and that this man has likely been pestered and propositioned in every way imaginable in the name of doing his job. My suspicion is reinforced when he locks the door and rolls the window down as minimally as possible. After he says he is not there to meet with me, he pauses for a moment before saying “What are you doing here, anyway?” When I explain, he simply points at the building and says “You’re going in there?” When I nod in the affirmative, he doesn’t say anything more; he just stares at me for a moment, rolls up his window, and drives off.
My contact arrives a few minutes later and leads me around to the emergency exit door on the south end of the building. As he tries a variety of keys, he notes in passing that “there is no power anywhere but the basement, so I hope you brought a flashlight.” I didn’t, though I’m unsure why the first part of his sentence surprises me. Fortunately, there is a modest light built into my phone and I am now glad that I brought a small digital camera with me, though my phone takes far better photos than the camera.
Initially, the room we step into is pitch black save for some dim light filtering in from a partly open door. After a moment, my eyes adjust and I recognize the small theater to the east of us and can barely read the yellow and black “THIS WAY TO EXPERIMENTS!” signs that line the top of the wall in front of us, eerily reminiscent of caution tape and signage at industrial sites. As if taking his cue from the décor, he reiterates an earlier warning, “Just don’t hurt yourself, please.” He steps away to address the beeping alarm system on the wall.
My first thought is that it seems odd to have an alarm system on a derelict building that has no power and seemingly little in need of protection. But almost as quickly, I notice the cushions and odd pieces of clothing scattered about and realize that the alarm may be more for their protection than for the building. When I ask him about the alarm, he confirms my suspicion.
“Obviously, we don’t want people in here because it’s city property and we do want to do something with the place eventually. However, it’s also a safety precaution. It can be a little unnerving walking around in here. Even with the alarm, people find ways in that don’t trigger it. Evicting people, even families, is something we have to do from time to time.”
I fully appreciate the kind of apprehension he describes in walking around the building. Blackened stairways and closets are everywhere, as are large display pieces left when the Children’s Museum moved to their new downtown location. There are plenty of places to sleep and to hide, and with the building’s proximity to the rail yard and other transportation hubs, not to mention much of the city’s homeless services, there are plenty of people looking for a quiet place to sleep. If I were a maintenance person tasked with checking on the place from time to time, I don’t think I’d do so alone.
Though the interactive pieces and the artifacts are gone, much of the infrastructure of the exhibits, and the display cases themselves, remain, though most are toppled of damaged. We are both perplexed to find dead pigeons in several of the acrylic boxes. It doesn’t seem that they could have gotten into them by themselves, and though neither of us says it, I can tell we are both wondering if someone put them in there to die.
Likewise, nearly all of the murals on the walls remain – jungle scenes, marshlands, cowboys, Alice in Wonderland tropes, red rock desert views, even the “Studio of 10,000 Hands,” which features a room wallpapered in children’s handprints. Remarkably, none of these scenes have been defaced with graffiti or otherwise damaged. In a building less than a block from a rail yard – the epicenter of tagging in most cities – this seems almost unfathomable. It is as if those who did break in or stay here appreciated these touches to an otherwise dreary situation. The contrast of cheerfulness and inquisitiveness within the confines of a dim and slowly decomposing building is unsettling and in many of the rooms we find there is little to say. We are deep in the uncanny by the time we walk through two rooms upstairs that feature various playground equipment, including a tree house, a slide made to look like a cave, a ball pit complete with balls, and a sandbox still full of sand. With the exception of the sandbox, which is full of dead roaches (the only insects I see anywhere in the building) and raccoon prints, all these are clean and nearly pristine as if abandoned in the middle of a workday. However, people have clearly slept and eaten and lived only a few feet away and I can’t help but quietly obsess on that small detail as we continue on. Those rooms didn’t provide any obvious comforts or convenient access to exits or hiding places. So, did these things provide some small measure of safety or nostalgia? Did they create in squatters the same childish urge I have to play in the sand or climb in the tree house? Did they have children with them? That last question is perhaps more heartbreaking than anything else in the site.
“It does have a bit of zombie apocalypse feel about, doesn’t it?” my guide says as he leads me down a long hallway made to look like a red rock slot canyon towards the former single room occupancy (SRO) wing of the building where patrons visiting for recreational or medical reasons could get a room for the night right above the pools. These would become offices for museum staff in later years.
“Yeah, or Chernobyl,” I respond. I mean it, too. Many of the rooms are strangely reminiscent of the photos I’ve seen of apartments, amusement parks and businesses in Pripyat, the town evacuated on a moment’s notice when Chernobyl’s reactor four melted down in 1986. Only, here it is concentrated to tens of thousands of square feet instead of miles of city slowly being reclaimed by the weather and land. Outside, things are changing, rising, disappearing at astounding rates. But inside, the paint is peeling and large chasms have opened in ceilings and walls where the roof has leaked. Stairways are starting to crumble. But everything else is right where it should be, as if waiting for the occupant to come back. Near the first SRO is a closet with a key box similar to what would be found at a small hotel or bed and breakfast. Strangely, even after over a dozen years, every key still dangles from its proper place. Seemingly, memory resists even the most strident neglect.
Finally, we walk through a small hallway and he pulls aside a large hinged door that seems made to look like a wall and we enter the pool area. It is difficult to express the change in scale that takes place between those two spaces. The room that houses the main plunge pool is massive, far larger than I remember, with enormous buttresses spanning the ceiling and a mezzanine that runs along the entire west wall. From the outside, the building is deceptively small and it is difficult to imagine this residing within it. The skylights allow so much light into the space that, even on a gray, winter day, the effect of moving between the darkened hallway and the plunge is startling. Despite the light, is not difficult to imagine the space before the closure of the pools, the steam shrouding the room, diffusing the glare of the skylights. Nearly every account I received from people who visited the plunge included the details that the steam obscured nearly everything and all the light came from the ceiling.
Even in old photos of the pool, the damage caused to all surfaces in the vast hall by first sulphur and other minerals in the spring water, and later by the chlorine used to disinfect the water, is obvious. Though they could be cleaned and resurfaced, the water’s perpetual presence made this equally perpetual process. Now, however, the visible damage to the walls and ceilings appears to be due more to age and a leaking roof than anything else. Large stains and swaths of missing paint are clearly evident around the room, especially on the north wall.
The pool, which had been utilized by the museum primarily for storage for many years, is little more than an enormous garbage can filled with random office detritus, the garbage of passing vagrants and abandoned scaffolding from a restoration project forgotten over a decade ago. Though the foundations are still present, the diving boards and life guard tower at the north end of the pool are long gone, as is all the seating on mezzanine, where only concrete steps and scattered debris from the museum’s 2002 Olympic display remain. The warnings that lined the walls around the pool are still clearly legible, more so than anything else in the room, admonishing swimmers to not run, throw items from the balcony and to for the less experienced swimmers to stay in the shallow end. A tire sits dead center in the deep end of the pool, surrounded by yellow balls from the aforementioned ball pit. A few of them sit in the center of tire, suggesting it was a crude game of basketball for bored employees or homeless.
The deep plunge in the room to the north has fared no better. The balcony overlooking it is crumbling and is blocked off with caution tape while the staircase leading down to it looks much the same. The room itself lacks skylights and all the windows are boarded up, giving it more of the feeling of an oversized mausoleum than a municipal pool. It is dark and filthy, hardly giving one the impression of a place of healing or recreation.
Sadly, the private baths utilized by travelers and by nurses and therapists for treatments during the polio outbreaks of the 1940s are now long gone, filled in with concrete and utilized as exhibit and office space in later years. My uncle Gary was one of the many infants that was brought to Warm Springs for treatment during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was only one year old, just learning to walk, when he contracted to disease. My grandmother claimed that the hydrotherapies offered there were of great benefit to him. Though he walked with a pronounced limp, and usually with a cane, he fared better than many of his peers who were treated there and he never let the effects of the disease prevent him from doing what he wanted to do nor did he ever talk about the experience and its effects.
All around, there is a sense of haunting in the Plunge building. Everything there feels unfinished, abandoned. Decade’s worth of healing, leisure, and learning are reduced to little more than dingy edifice. On our way out, my contact leads me back through the hallways and I point to the corner of one room and note that it has not changed in any way from the way I remember it the last time my sister brought me there, twenty-five years ago, that it creates the uncanny sense of walking through a dream.
“It doesn’t seem many people dream about this place anymore,” he says.
Though I laugh, I don’t think that is necessarily true. A former boss dreams of a bookstore there. An old friend imagines it as an artist collective. Another wants to reopen the pools, restore the waters to the city. I can’t help but imagine that it percolates at the edges of the imagination for many in Salt Lake. It is a distinctive place, one steeped in history and tied to the inner workings of the land on which we reside. It is an abandoned palace with direct ties to the world below us. A last point of physical contact with the land before we start the process of tearing it apart. How can that not be the stuff of dreams, and what does it say about us that we continue to let it stagnate at the edges of home?
“About.” goldenspiketrainclub.org. Golden Spike Train Club, 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2015.
All photos by Michael McLane, except Warm Springs Plunge, 1940: courtesy of Utah Division of State History.