Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpA poolside reverie this summer prompted me to ponder the state of swimming around Arlington County.

To refresh: The county board’s ambitious plan for a world-class swimming complex is on hold, pending the county manager’s rethinking the possibilities for the Long Bridge Park site following harrowingly high bids from contractors.
After blasts from critics of overspending, the county board this March directed staff to broaden civic engagement and explore possibilities of sponsoring partnerships.

Backers of the Pentagon City neighborhood aquatics center have stressed the need to compete with neighboring jurisdictions in the quality-of-life sweepstakes with Olympic-scale offerings. And they advertise the customized water therapy tools for seniors who have trouble getting in the three public high school pools due to limited hours.

But I thought of another selling point even though, projecting from the comfort of my membership at Overlee pool, I am unlikely to use a Long Bridge Park pool myself.

A mental survey of Arlington’s major public and private pools highlights some interesting geography.

Our earliest public swimming was done in the Potomac early in the 20th century at a site near today’s 14th Street Bridge called Arlington Beach (photos and advertisements survive).

But historical racial segregation and the high costs of building and running (and joining) a swimming pool meant that most of the subsequent facilities were private. As in the Army Navy Country Club off of South Glebe Road (est. 1924) with complicated membership categories for military and civilians and which today has four pools.

Up North, Washington Golf and Country Club has had a pool at least as far back as 1936, when its old clubhouse burned. It expanded its main pool in 1958.

Arlington’s postwar boom brought the subdivision membership associations. Arlington Forest got there first in 1954, with its handsome pool nestled below the Carlin Springs Road. Dominion Hills Pool on Wilson Blvd. wrote its bylaws in 1955 and built on the site of the 19th-century Powhatan Springs. My own Overlee Community Association formed on Lee Highway in 1957 and became a regional swim competition powerhouse.

In 1959, the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club – Arlington’s first indoor membership pool – was founded by Coach Stan Tinkham on Lee Highway in lower Cherrydale (my parents sent me there). It closed in 1988. Donaldson Run pool off Military road opened in 1958.

Not to be outdone, the Catholics at Knights of Columbus pool opened a pool hidden from the street view on Little Falls Road. (Its swim team is named the Holy Mackerel). And the Fort Myer-Henderson Hall base now boasts four pools for military families (in 2012 it opened its lanes to government employees).

The big victory for public swimming opportunities was the opening in 1973 of taxpayer-funded pools at Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield high schools. Then in 1979, the largest non-membership public pool opened at Upton Hill on Wilson Blvd. The pay-per-swim club is run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which also offers mini-golf and a batting cage.

With those you could toss in the Arlington families who sneak across the McLean border to join Chesterbrook or Tuckahoe pools.

The upshot? Our natatory options are tilted heavily to North Arlington. South Arlington gets only the part-time-public Wakefield pool and the members-only Army Navy Country Club.

Backers of the Long Branch Park complex may be wary of invoking the north-south divide. But their project, if built, would help alleviate it.

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Have you noticed that Northern Virginians recently seem to be traveling to visit a character named Willy Reston? I’ve heard many of the Metro train drivers on the Silver Line, when announcing the terminus Wiehle-Reston, pronouncing it not as WHEELIE-Reston, but as WILLY. Could Willie be the new mascot for South Lakes High School?

CORRECTION: Donaldson Run was founded in 1958, not 1962 as originally reported.