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Richmond Poised To Take Plunge
September 23, 1997

Council decides tonight on fate of historic pool

CHIP JOHNSON Tuesday, September 23, 1997


There are places in every village, town and city that hold a sacred spot in the hearts and minds of the people who grew up there. 

They are photo albums made of wood and steel, jam-packed with memories and stories and great life moments never forgotten. Time erodes beauty, but legend often takes its place. 

The Richmond Municipal Natatorium -- or the Plunge, as it's widely known -- tucked inside historic Point Richmond, is legendary. Time has stolen its strength. Its architectural beauty is cracked and faded, but its legend is unyielding. 

Some of its most ardent supporters seem to believe the old pool's warm waters hold magic healing powers. 

Tonight, city officials could decide whether to close the indoor pool immediately or keep it open until a November bond measure allows residents to decide whether to repair the 71-year-old landmark. 

City Manager Floyd Johnson has the power to close the pool, a move that Councilman Tom Butt believes is unlikely. 

``I think the council will give direction for the city manager to keep it open until Election Day,'' Butt said. 

A recommendation by city building inspectors to close the pool, which suffered structural damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, has sparked a controversy about its utility and value to the city. The building needs an estimated $4.5 million in repairs, and if the November bond measure fails, the Plunge will close for good. 

Supporters, who include a majority of the council, say the building's white-columned facade, engraved stone and ornamentation are historical markers of old Point Richmond that speak to visitors about its past. Its longevity tells its own story. 

It's a story that June Albonico, who manages the pool, knows well. She's spent part of every week for the last 41 years working there as an instructor, a lifeguard or a manager. At 70, she still carries her dry clothes in a knotted-up plastic bag. 

``I'd like to see them keep the face of the building and do something that will last another 70 years,'' she said. 

She is realistic about the condition of the building and can point to all its structural shortcomings. In the next breath, she defends it. It's true that the 50- by 20-yard pool is still immaculate, and nothing closer than a public indoor pool in Hayward can match it in the East Bay. 

When Albonico climbed into the pool, took Sophie Lozano's hand and began a swimming lesson last week, it was plain to see why she loves the place. It's as clear as the water itself. 

``She put my daughter in her place,'' said Sophie's father, David Lozano of Pinole. ``June was firm but loving, and Sophie needed it.'' 

``Look at her!'' he said, proudly pointing at his daughter from his perch in the balcony. ``She's 3 1/2 and she's under water! 

``This is where I learned to swim and I'm 31 years old,'' Lozano said. ``June might have been my instructor. I can't remember.'' 

City Councilman Alex Evans, one of five council members who voted for the public safety bond measure, believes restoring the building and retaining the history benefits everyone. But he concedes that the Plunge cannot continue to operate in its present condition. 

``The place is an embarrassment, it's dangerous and it cannot be properly maintained under current funding,'' Evans said. 

And while sentimental supporters look past the historic building's scars and age spots, Richmond inspectors looked squarely at the structure with all its warts exposed. 

Outside, inspectors found ornamental stone falling off the east wall of the dark green building and fissures more than 10 feet long. Inside, rebar stuck out of the wall like exposed ribs. Plaster crumbled in the hand like talc, and the west wall, made of hollow clay brick, sagged downward with a pronounced frown. 

Nonetheless, hard-core supporters are unwilling to accept the prospect of the building's demise. 

Walt Fauerso, chief organizer of a group called Save the Plunge Committee, has been here before. More than 20 years ago, city officials floated a trial balloon to close the Plunge, and Fauerso and his followers shot it down, pronto. 

``All through the years, it's been a low-priority item, and that's not unusual,'' said Fauerso, who blamed the pool's condition on the lack of continuing maintenance. ``It goes on all over the country, and it's called pothole-itis.'' 

Supporters have asked the city to place a sign warning people to enter at their own risk to reduce Richmond's liability. Others have asked to sign waiver of liability forms to continue swimming there. 

Fauerso and his wife, Esther, both 77, say the warm waters and exercise have worked magic on their ailments. And Walt quickly gives a testimonial. 

``I started swimming there 29 years ago, almost every day,'' he said. ``I took off my back brace more than 20 years ago, and my back is stronger now than ever.''