Pooling Resources

There’s a truck with a trailer driving in the deep end!” says Pat Healy, looking out from a window in the clubhouse at Fry’s Spring Beach Club at the crater where a 100-meter swimming pool used to be. On this bright February day, it looks more like a giant, muddy hole, shored up with remnants of blue concrete walls and crawling with hard-hatted workers and heavy machinery.

But Healy is beaming. By Memorial Day, the view from this window should be very different: a brand-new pool, and a solid future for both the club and its surrounding Jefferson Park Avenue neighborhood.

Fry’s Spring is an exception to many Charlottesville rules. In an era of development that voraciously devours green space to put up apartment buildings and parking garages, Fry’s Spring is a woodsy oasis that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. In a town where many historical buildings now house upscale boutiques and lofts, Fry’s Spring is an uncluttered portal to the past. And, in a neighborhood suffused with an ever-shifting—and soon-to-burgeon—student population, Fry’s Spring is a family place where long-term relationships are the norm.

All this was at stake when the members of Fry’s Spring Beach Club voted last year to completely rebuild the 82-year-old swimming pool. Martin Chapman, president of the club’s board of directors, says the $765,000 project was clearly necessary. “Nobody’s ever stood up and said ‘We shouldn’t do this,’” he says. “The only question was ‘How can we do this?’”

This year marks the biggest watershed in club history since the pool was built in 1921. Yet it’s certainly not the first time these 10 acres near the intersection of JPA Extended and Old Lynchburg Road have passed through a moment of redefinition. Time after time, the property and its stewards have resisted development, even as it’s defined the evolution of the neighborhood that surrounds it.

 

Once part of a 305-acre parcel owned by Albemarle County co-founder Joshua Fry (for whom the neighborhood is named), the club’s site was largely woodland as late as 1890. In that year, Steven Price Maury bought it and set about building a grand 100-room hotel on the current site of the Jefferson Park Baptist Church. Native Americans had long used natural springs on the property for their curative powers (attributed to the water’s high iron content), and Maury hoped the waters would attract guests. A wooden Victorian confection draped with 400 feet of porches and festooned with gables and cupolas, the Albemarle Hotel (later renamed the Jefferson Park Hotel) charged $3 per room. The hotel originated the spot’s long tradition of live entertainment, with dancing in an open-air pavilion down the hill from it.

Though it was never a moneymaker, the hotel did fuel interest in the Fry’s Spring area. Its heyday coincided with that of the streetcar, which ran orange-and-blue cars along what is now Cherry Avenue, bringing City dwellers to dance and take in the waters. Charlottesville’s first movies were shown near the hotel, projected on bed sheets strung between trees, and there was even a theme park next door called Wonderland. Featuring a menagerie, roller-skating and horse shows, Wonderland was a project of the Charlottesville and Albemarle Railway Company, meant to entice riders at 5 cents per head. The hotel was the end of the line then, and some of those riders eventually built houses in what became Charlottesville’s first suburb.

The hotel was dismantled in 1914 after being badly damaged by a fire. Other changes were coming too: G. Russell Dettor, a businessman who bought the property in 1921, was about to propose a very big idea.

“To dig a 100-meter swimming pool, when most people went swimming in the creek, was quite forward-looking,” says Healy, a club board member, remarking on Dettor’s radical notion. In the early 20th century, very few people even knew how to swim. That didn’t stop Dettor from designing his pool with a 9’ deep end, or from charging money to swim in it. He also enclosed the old dance pavilion that had been part of the hotel, forming the nucleus of what is today the clubhouse.

 

Thus began nearly a half-century of jazzy, glamorous, all-American fun: Big-band entertainment, competitive swimming, and a social scene so hopping that at one point, in the late 1950s, Charlottesvillians could go out dancing at Fry’s Spring every night of the week.

“It was the place. It was the social club,” says club manager Greg Hussar. “We’re gradually building that back up again.”

The constant merriment prompted one observer to remark that “Charlottesville is divided into two parts—Charlottesville proper and Fry’s Spring improper.”

These days, the clubhouse has the feel of a comfortable, storied retreat, retro in the most unself-conscious way. Art Deco-style doors lead into a dark lobby with a large flowery pattern on the red carpet. In the ballroom, which holds 500, semicircular booths flank a sprung wooden dance floor, each with a number tiled right into the linoleum in front of it. Obviously partial to the setting, Chapman says that, compared to Fry’s Spring, other ballrooms in town feel sterile. “You have this relatively low ceiling,” he says. “If you have enough people in there, it creates a nice little party atmosphere.” The ballroom still hosts plenty of weddings and other parties.

By 1970, Dettor was ready to retire, and Fry’s Spring was at a crossroads. “There were plans on the table for a duplex community with 128 units,” says Healy. “Some of the people whose families swam here got together and said, ‘We would like to preserve this. This is an important part of this community’s social history. You can always build more houses, but where are you going to get this again?’”

The families formed a corporation, Fry’s Spring, Inc., and bought the property from Dettor. The pool had temporarily escaped the threat of development, but in 1991 the cycle repeated itself: With the children of the Fry’s Spring, Inc., members having grown up, the club’s owners were again ready to sell. This time, a broader members’ group came together. They put down $1,000 each, and formed a new, more cooperative corporation: Fry’s Spring Beach Club, Inc. Healy says this group, though it could barely keep up with maintenance on the aging pool, somehow managed to preserve the club’s venerable family feeling.

The pool, says Healy, also a longtime member, is a “monument to deferred maintenance.” He watches the ongoing construction with a mixture of rueful affection for the old and enthusiasm for the new. “That has a real post-World War II look to it, doesn’t it?” he remarks, peering into the pump room behind the pool’s deep end. Five “Space Age” sand filters lurk in the darkness—rusted, rotund tanks that have been cut open to reveal chunks of what looks like sawdust.

When these filters were new, in 1948, they brought a key change in Fry’s Spring history. Up to that time, the water source had been Moore’s Creek, which Dettor dammed up and pumped into the pool. “The sanitary system was that you got new creek water every day,” Healy says. With the addition of sand filters and water pumped from City reservoirs, “It stopped being olive-colored creek water, and it started being a sparkly blue, chlorinated, modern swimming pool.”

Revolutionary though they once were, the filters are now in desperate need of replacement. “We’re going to have high-tech, turn-that-water-over, lots-o’-gallons-a-minute kind of sand filters,” says Healy. Decks, too, were on the verge of collapse. Altogether, says Chapman, “We really didn’t know whether the pool could actually survive another year.”

The new pool will be superior in many ways. For one thing, it will perform a basic swimming-pool function the old pool couldn’t quite handle—holding water. Chapman says the old, leaky pool required untold hours of labor.

“Each year, somebody had to clean it all out with bleach, flushing out all of the drains, then getting it filled and making sure the water was getting recirculated properly,” he says. “There’s only so much time you can ask people to volunteer.” The new pool will be easier to maintain and use significantly less water.

A new design better allocates space for lap swimming and casual splashing around. Wider decks will better accommodate swim meets (the Dolphins are the Fry’s Spring swim team, part of the Jefferson Swim League) and private parties on summer evenings—which, in turn, may generate revenue for future projects, namely additional renovation of the clubhouse.

 

Club members acknowledge a certain melancholy in seeing their funky old pool demolished—even with a new one on the way. Jeanne Siler has been bringing her two daughters to Fry’s Spring since they were little. One daughter, a former swim team member and lifeguard, is now off at college. Siler recently emailed her photos of the project. “She sobbed as she opened up each new picture,” Siler says.

Siler’s daughter isn’t alone in her attachment to the place. The construction plans, Healy said, are meant to carefully preserve the club’s signature ambience, largely dependent on the century-old trees making a canopy over the pool grounds and the wooded acres separating the club from nearby houses.

“Yes, we want a state-of-the-art swimming pool,” he says, “but not at the cost of what really makes us special. We don’t have a vast chunk of concrete absorbing radiant energy all day. When you step through that gate, it is literally 10 to 15 degrees cooler than when you were out at your car.”

Miraculously, the project will sacrifice only one tree, a hickory leaning precariously over a corner of the pool.

By all accounts, the summertime scene at Fry’s Spring is one of good clean fun, where families form long-term friendships. Green and white lawn chairs are scattered around the pool; kids throw down towels on the grass and run off to play Marco Polo or water basketball. Three separate pools accommodate kids of different ages. “Typically, people join and start in the wading pool,” says Healy. “Your kid’s 2 years old. Then ‘he’s a big boy! A big girl!’ and you’re here in the middle pool. Then they want to join the swim team. Then by the time the kids are all teenagers and they’re up here playing Hearts on the patio, you’re down here at the deep end with your old buddies you’ve been sitting with every summer for years, reading the Sunday Post.”

Though as late as 1970 Fry’s Spring was a whites-only club, the only requirement now is the cost of membership, which at $650-750 per family, makes the club relatively affordable to everyone.

Funding for the new pool is coming largely from its members. Four club families, making donations or loans in $25,000 increments, formed the Friends of Fry’s Spring—altogether providing $200,000.

“Really that’s provided the impetus to make the project realistic,” Chapman says. Another chunk is coming from an increase in membership dues and other member fundraisers. The remainder is covered by a loan. Todd Bullard and Marty Rowan, both architects and board members, helped alleviate costs by donating their services to the design process.

Members hope the new facilities will help build up membership and maybe, eventually, bring back the glory days for the clubhouse. Chapman says the ballroom could help fill a year-round void in the Charlottesville social landscape. “When I was a kid in England, every Saturday night there would be a big dance,” he says. “We used to see some big rock groups in a place not dissimilar to Fry’s Spring Beach Club. That seems to be missing in Charlottesville.”

 

Healy stands over the natural spring downhill from the clubhouse, using a stick to stir leafy water. Fry’s Spring bubbles forth even on a freezing morning and paints a red streak down the rocks—a mark of its iron content. Healy says that, though the springs are no longer the focal point of activity as in the days of the Albemarle Hotel, they still symbolize the importance of preserving green space within City limits.

Ultimately, the decision to preserve Fry’s Spring Beach Club means not only more fond memories, but also a stand against the increasing population density in the surrounding neighborhood. Madeleine Watkins, Chapman’s wife, acknowledges that “It’s the kind of facility that, if it ever went up for sale, obviously it would sell very quickly and you could make lots of money for lots of people.”

Unlike in 1970, there were no specific proposals this time around to bid farewell to the pool and cash in on the property, which was assessed last year at $1.43 million. But there were a few ideas floating around that were not entirely out of the preservationist playbook.

“There were some proposals that circulated last year for building houses all the way around the club, to raise money to build the pool,” Chapman says. “But I don’t think from a community point of view that would be a good thing, because we have this really nice open space. Lots of people in the community use it for walking the dog, running, walking in the woods.”

Woods, in this neighborhood, are fast becoming scarce. Just outside City limits, three new apartment complexes—Sterling University Housing, Collegiate Hall and Jefferson Ridge—are going up on Sunset Avenue and Fifth Street Extended. Sitting on formerly undeveloped pieces of County land in what’s regarded as the urban ring, the City’s immediate outskirts, the majority of the 658 apartments will be occupied by UVA students. Closer to the beach club, a wooded area on Belleview Avenue may eventually be sacrificed for even more housing. Jim Tolbert, City planner, says developers have expressed interest in the 40 duplex lots (though construction is still a long way off).

Inevitably, traffic is the area’s biggest problem, says Mike Farruggio, president of Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association, and it’s not going to get any better with the new housing. County-dwellers in the new apartments will be using already busy (and sidewalk-less) streets to enter the City. “We have children, mothers, joggers and bicyclists riding up and down Old Lynchburg Road, competing with cars that are going to the County,” Farruggio says. “It’s going to increase dramatically when these apartment complexes are filled.”

Further up Jefferson Park Avenue, the City has recently drawn University Precincts as part of its rezoning process, and in those density is slated to skyrocket. In the next half-decade, an additional 3,000 to 6,000 UVA students will be shoehorned into buildings as tall as seven stories, for which developers won’t be required to provide on-site parking. Though Farruggio says Fry’s Spring and JPA are two distinct neighborhoods, he is already plenty aware of UVA’s presence.

“We have people driving to our neighborhood to park to walk to school,” he says. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

The City claims that putting students close to UVA will eliminate the need for students to own cars, and Farruggio hopes they’re right (other observers are skeptical as long as UVA refuses to ban or severely limit car ownership among students). With County housing on one side and University Precincts on the other, the Fry’s Spring neighborhood is bound to feel the effects of a rapidly growing ’Hoo population.

In this pressurized climate, Fry’s Spring Beach Club is an important holdout. “As a neighborhood association, we love the beach club,” Farruggio says. “It is an anchor to the community.”

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