St Kilda Sea Baths
The St Kilda Sea Baths is a pool, spa, food and entertainment complex on St Kilda Beach, Victoria, Australia. Numerous 'seabath' structures have come and gone on the St Kilda foreshore, the last built in a Spanish- Moorish style in 1931, which was demolished in the 1990s and replaced by the present structure, partly reconstructing the 1931 baths.
Until the 1850s, 'open' sea bathing, that is, in the open sea, was not generally considered acceptable. It was however permitted within large timber structures as protection from predatory marine life and away from public view. The first formal St Kilda Sea Baths were opened in 1860, and provided separate sections for men and women. Women were protected from the sight of men bathing because men frequently bathed naked. Sea bathing was popular as it was considered to have health benefits. Throughout the 19th century there were as many as six different sea baths operating along the St Kilda shore.
The first baths structure was a half-sunken ship; in 1854, Captain Kenney bought the ship Nancy, which he scuttled south of St Kilda Pier. He ran a line to shore to guide bathers out to the ship. The bathing ship survived until 1912. Kenney also operated ladies’ baths at St Kilda.
An 1856 select committee of the Legislative Council of Victoria recommended the establishment of a Sea Bathing Company at St Kilda of two bathing houses. Construction commenced in 1858 and the baths opened in 1860. They included gymnasium, refreshment rooms, residence, and offices and a 234 x 61 metre swimming enclosure. Bathers formed a club, ‘Companions of the Baths’. Eventually there were at least four separate enclosures. The last, in 1903, was the most exotic with clusters of domes, and hot sea baths, and was destroyed by fire in 1926.
By the mid 1920s, increasing numbers of people were bathing in the open sea. By 1928 men and women were mingling freely in the water and St Kilda Council erected three open-sea changing pavilions along its foreshore: at West St Kilda, on Beaconsfield Parade, at St Kilda Beach (at 40 Jacka Boulevard) and at Elwood (Ormond Esplanade, demolished in 1971). The beach pavilions proved more popular than the sea baths.
Nevertheless, new baths were built by St Kilda Council. It was designed in 1929 by the St Kilda City Engineer’s Department. The City Building Surveyor was Richard Terence who held a certificate in engineering. No architect appears to have been engaged. The new sea baths were no flimsy timber structure, but spacious and solid. The women’s section had Islamic fretwork screens and Moorish domed towers which echo the pairs of domical towers at the Palais, at Luna Park and elsewhere in St Kilda. The men’s section had arcades facing the shore, with wavy Spanish Mission parapets and decoration. Anticipating popularity, 756 lockers were provided for men and 572 for women. Other sea baths in Victoria like the surviving Brighton Baths (1936), the Williamstown Pavilion (1936) and the Geelong Eastern Beach Baths (1937) did not include such a large range of facilities in their shore structures.
The new Sea Baths opened in 1931. By then, the concept of enclosed sea baths was already outmoded and the baths were never successful as envisaged. The building deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, and by 1950 the timber wings of the mens baths which stretched east to sea were considered unsafe and closed. The 1931 lease expired in 1953. In 1955, the government signed a new lease with South Pacific Holdings, and some time later the deteriorated men’s baths and the decorative parapets were demolished, and the toilets closed. The concrete women’s section was repaired.
A sequence of night-clubs operated in the structure. In the 1970s one of the most infamous of these clubs was Bojangles. It was notorious for its violence and several deaths. In 1981, the Sea Baths’ concrete wings were demolished. By the mid-1980s, the only operative lease was for the hot Sea Baths which was surrounded by a derelict structure. The night-club had closed and the former café fell victim to fires and vandalism.
In 1985, the adjacent St Kilda Pier was rebuilt, but redevelopment of the Sea Baths was not discussed until 1989. In late 1991 state government sought redevelopment proposals for the site. In 1993 the Sea Baths closed, and in 1995 all but the domes were demolished in preparation to build a new sea baths. The planning and construction was beset with controversy and the failure of the development company, until finally a new company, South Pacific St Kilda Pty Ltd was granted a 50 year lease in 1999, and a new design, along with an underground carpark, was approved in 2000. The then the Deputy Premier John Thwaites officially opened the $55 million, 10,000 square metre pool complex, in 2001.
This design incorporates a reconstruction of the twin-domed Moorish-style section, and a plainer section adjacent occupying the footprint of the former baths. The complex includes numerous restaurants on two levels, function rooms, a courtyard between the Moorish domes, a public swimming pool and a health club, operated by Hepburn Spa Resort, containing Australia's only indoor heated sea-water pool.
The land on which the Sea Baths were built has remained Crown Land, managed by the Department of Lands and its successors (in 2018 this is the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), in consultation with the local Council, currently the City of POrt Phillip. Council has not always agreed with the decisions of the Department. The complex is leased to an operator, who sub-let various ancillary functions.
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