The Good Life
With a recreational rather than a medicinal focus, the new baths were a by-word for the good life. Built during the Great Depression, the thoroughly modern swimming establishment was a considerable break away from Rotorua’s other Government bath houses, both architecturally and in attitude. Where they promised health, the Blue baths promised only pleasure. Where they offered treatments for a variety of ailments from gout to psoriasis, The Blue Baths offered movie-style glamour, for an afternoon at least.
The Blue baths were the last gasp of New Zealand’s large scale spa development, begun in the nineteenth century by colonial dreamers who envisaged a great spa in the South Seas and had set about recreating the Dominion as the premier watering hole for the Empire. The Blue Baths were the final symbol of the government’s intention to fulfil that dream and attract more tourists, and proof positive of the New Zealand Dominions claim to being one of the world’s most attractive playgrounds.Mixed bathing was the highlight of those attractions. For the first time, men and women could get (almost) naked, together in public – a reflection of the changing attitudes and increasingly relaxed mores in existence after the First World War.
The intention was also to make Rotorua the chief centre of the Dominions sporting activities. To that end, the Blue Baths also offered instruction in “fancy and scientific swimming” as well as diving tuition. Its swimming and diving carnivals became the stuff of legends, as did the sporting stars who hailed from the district. However, it nearly didn’t happen. They almost didn’t get built. Work started right enough and the smaller juvenile pool opened to great acclaim and large crowds on December 21st 1931.
Trouble in Paradise
The Government Balneologist, Dr JDC Duncan declared: “Judging by tonight, it looks as though it will not be a bath but a sardine tin, but, I hope that when all the pools are complete we shall have room for all the world and his wife, for that is the idea of mixed bathing. We hope to make this the Mecca of Rotorua”. Two minutes after the official portion of the opening had concluded the first swimmer was in the water. Within minutes, the number had swelled to more than 200. However following such a promising beginning, work on The Blue Baths ground to a halt. The Government changed, the money ran out, and completion of stage two was temporarily discontinued.
One year later on December 23 1932, the main bath was opened, albeit without tiles. And once again, hampered by funds, work was delayed. The Blue Baths now had two pools but still no diving stage, while the front of the building remained incomplete with no offices, vestibule or tearooms. Finally, the government decided to finish what it had begun – “to provide modern facilities for bathing in Rotorua, in keeping with the requirement of an up-to-date tourist resort”. On June 23rd 1933 cabinet voted to dip into the public purse so work on the baths could resume.
War & Water Woes
The mood in Rotorua was jubilant. The Rotorua Morning Post editorial the following day congratulated the government on its decision to complete the new building.“They are a unique attraction and an asset to the whole of the Dominion. Already it is impossible to visit Rotorua without visiting the blue Baths but as the baths become known abroad, the time will come when it will be impossible to visit New Zealand without visiting the baths” Relief gangs were engaged for maintenance work, there was a flurry of activity from plasterers, plumbers, chippies and sparkies as building proceeded apace, and by New Years Eve in 1933 the baths were finally opened in their full splendour.
People flocked there from all over to luxuriate in their warm blue waters. Visitors wrote to the paper singing the praises and professing the baths to be not only among the finest in the world, but the talk of most foreign countries. The governments gamble had paid off.
Even the intervention of the Second World War did little to dim people’s enthusiasm for the baths, though the threat from enemy shipping proved an effective deterrent to visitors from abroad, severely curtailing the number of swimmers for the duration of the conflict.
The war years provided others with somewhat less pleasant memories of the baths – the Tearooms were commandeered by the dental section of the Royal New Zealand Airforce. Downstairs, people still swam, but upstairs, the Tearooms were unrecognisable. The dainty china and silver teaspoons, frilled and starched aprons and caps, café tables and chairs were carefully packed away and put into storage between 1942 and 1943. In their place were leather and steel recliners, all manner of chemicals and various instruments of torture.
Tens of thousands of young men passed through the makeshift dental clinic on their way to war as 400 new recruits every six weeks had their teeth checked.
But in the end, the mass appeal of the Blue Baths overcame all else…..even continuing problems with the water supply. The loss of their original water source in 1942 sparked a public outcry, when instead of piping in sparkling azure water from Whakarewarewa’s famed Rachel Springs; the baths were tapped directly into the town’s geothermal bores. The water was no longer blue, but cloudy white and sulphurous and there was some talk it was dangerous – the feeling being that if a swimmer disappeared beneath the waters, he would not be noticed. But still they came. The problem was eventually solved in 1954 by using water from the town supply, merely heated by the thermal bores. The baths were now just a swimming pool with no mineral properties. No longer luxurious and beginning to show signs of neglect they still managed to captivate successive generations of swimmers and their fame grew.
In the greedy and short-sighted eighties though, it seemed the dream had come to an end. Once heralded as the finest swimming establishment in the southern hemisphere, the baths were closed in 1982. Widely acknowledged as one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture anywhere, the building was left to decay, slowly crumbling amid clouds of sulphurous steam.
But the Blue Baths are obviously blessed by the gods. Though they did not have a charmed existence after they closed, they did continue to exist, escaping both the bulldozers and threat of being made-over into a martial arts and fitness centre. In 1999, a joint project between the Rotorua District Council and developer Mike Romanes saw the Blue Baths painstakingly and lovingly restored. The Blue Baths reopened 21st December 1999, 68 years to the day they originally charmed the world.