When the visual history of the pandemic is winnowed down to its defining images, we’ll be struck again by the glare of disparity — the pictures of mobile morgues and long lines at food banks next to those of people who seem to be riding out the crisis on a wave of rhubarb cocktail infusions and early evening beach walks. On the one side, the pervasive physical and economic toll; on the other, the chic home gyms of Instagram, the velvety spring lawns of Amagansett, the casting of lockdown life as an image from Slim Aarons.
Aarons was a World War II combat photographer before he became a chronicler of a hybrid American aristocracy in repose. His most famous photographs show his subjects hanging around their pools in a state of glamorous, contented isolation. Many of these were taken during the 1960s and ’70s, when America was on fire and ripped apart, the images suggesting insulation as much as oasis — the defense against a broad range of new, discomfiting realities.
As we enter the Summer of Our Confinement, the private pool has taken on a similar resonance — as a kind of safety valve by which to avoid too much despair. It is a luxury asset whose status has been twisted into necessity. If you had previously regarded the notion of having your own place to swim as ostentatious, inefficient, inimical to all your communitarian values, you might now see it differently — as a reliable means of circumventing contact with the dangerous vector class.
The desire for a pool is easily frustrated under ordinary circumstance, but especially so at the moment. There are the obvious and considerable barriers imposed by space and cost — a Gunite pool of 20 feet by 40 feet will run you $75,000 at the minimum, on a flat piece of land; forget it if your property needs grading. But the demand is also so high in parts of the Northeast seriously affected by the virus that a contractor will be unlikely to accommodate you when you call, telling him you need relief, right away.
Relief from the fact that children of varying ages are home without a nanny or camp, that you are definitely not going to Portugal in July, that public pools and beaches and country clubs will be closed or so restricted that they may not be worth the effort.
This week a feud erupted between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Democratic Nassau County executive, Laura Curran, over whether residents of New York City should be permitted on certain Long Island beaches. The incident followed the mayor’s admonition that anyone caught in the ocean at a city beach over the holiday weekend would be “taken right out of the water.”
“Anyone,” of course, does not apply to everyone. The wealthy are not facing the indignity of getting fished out of the Atlantic. They have already situated themselves far from the urban shoreline — in New England, for instance, where I recently caught up with Steve Reale, the construction manager for a company called Custom Quality Pools. Mr. Reale builds expensive pools on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island, and he has been fielding approximately 30 inquiries about them a week, three times the number he usually receives at this point in the year.
“It is everyone calling today for tomorrow,’’ he told me. And tomorrow is impossible because of backed-up demand following last year’s shark scares on the Cape and the use of smaller crews mandated by social distancing. (Pool work, however, was deemed an “essential” business by the State of Massachusetts at the outset of the crisis, so there is that silver lining.)
Traveling farther down the coast to Westport, Conn. — Cheever country — the pool obsession is no less frenetic. If you want a pool in Westport, you need a permit from the town’s building department. The number of requests has jumped this year, with 10 coming in just the past two weeks. Michele Onoforio, who works in the department, found herself really taken aback when she got three separate calls about aboveground pools recently.
Were people really that desperate? “I hadn’t seen one of these requests in 10 years,’’ she said. “I didn’t even know the protocol.’’ An aboveground pool in Westport is like a bag of Sun Chips on a table at Per Se.
Westport is one of many aesthetically pleasing places where affluent New Yorkers fleeing the infection have decamped. Some have chosen to move permanently. “The New Yorkers all want pools, and the inventory is very low,’’ Suzanne Sholes, a real estate agent in town told me. The houses that have them receive multiple offers both on the rental and sales sides despite the catastrophes afflicting the economy.
Taken from a historical view, the irony of all this is that swimming pools were not always the provenance of the rich. To the contrary, they surfaced in this country as a means of Progressive-era reform in cities, as bathing facilities for the poor, who were frequently dying from attempts to cool off in the East River. At the turn of the 20th century, pools were regarded as a combatant of disease, when illness was thought to have its roots in uncleanliness.
Mansions built during the Gilded Age, in Newport, R.I., and the North Shore of Long Island went up without pools largely because filtration technology had not been perfected. But swimming was also yet to become an interest of the well-to-do, according to John Tschirch, an architectural historian.
Residential pools gained some small measure of popularity in the wake of World War I but it was not until the aftermath of the Second World War that they were commonplace. In 1949, approximately 10,000 American homes had swimming pools; 10 years later that figure would climb to 250,000. Today there are more than 10 million.
Like so many luxuries now only available to those in the top tax brackets, pools were once well within the reach of the middle class. That same 20-by-40 Gunite pool cost about $3,400 in the 1950s (or $32,000 today). Owning a pool was made easier through short-term home-improvement loans created at the time by Wells Fargo and other banks that sought to capitalize on the country’s vast suburban expansion.
At its high end, the Covid real estate market understands that the buyer wants more than a home he can slowly gussy up over time. He wants a fortress that can immediately and simultaneously serve as a five-star hotel. A current listing for a $2.4 million house in Montclair, N.J., with a pool, loggia, tennis court, grotto and waterfall implies as much; the property is billed as “your STAYCATION resort-style home.’’ Whoever buys it is bound to have a great summer.
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