| Special to the Daily News
A century ago in Palm Beach, Olympic swimmers and aquatic stuntmen performed to the delight of affluent winter residents and visitors.
After all, swimming pools back then, still a relatively new concept in America, were often as much about spectacle as they were recreation.
The island was home to two pool complexes — where, for several years, women were required to wear long frocks and opaque stockings when taking a dip.
If you wanted to witness lifeguards riding a 500-pound sea turtle in a pool, you went to a saltwater swimming-pool complex, called Gus’ Baths, which opened in 1910 across the street from today’s Midtown Beach.
But for more elegant surroundings and understated exhibitions, including children’s swimming races and swan-diving shows by Olympic champs, you went to The Breakers’ pool facility, located where the resort’s Beach Club is today.
The beachside pool building was called The Breakers’ Casino (gambling had nothing to do with it) and first included a salt-water pool and changing rooms. Then in 1920, the resort embarked on one of its most ambitious Casino projects, moving the entire building closer to the ocean and remodeling it with diving towers, Turkish baths, a rooftop tanning salon and more.
Such changes were “of more than much interest” locally, a society reporter noted. After all, for years, visiting the Casino at the 11 a.m. “bathing hour” was a ritual, followed by al fresco tea dances and diving exhibitions by the resort’s lifeguards, including Swedish-American Olympian Charles Norelius.
The earliest Casino building was built after Standard Oil baron, railroad tycoon and developer Henry Flagler opened the original Breakers, a Georgian Revival-style building, in 1896. A catastrophic fire destroyed the hotel in 1903.
A second version of The Breakers, a four-story Colonial-style building, opened in 1904. It featured a Casino that was a stone’s throw to the south. The new Casino, with stucco features and a semi-enclosed saltwater pool, would be improved periodically until the resort reportedly invested $75,000 for a 1920 re-do.
That re-do — a vast two-story building featuring Colonial and Spanish design with balustrades, columns, dome-wrapped towers, verandahs and a tunnel to the beach — debuted in December 1921.
Inside, 1,000 changing rooms were reserved for hotel guests and seasonal Casino members, plus members of The Sailfish Club, which for years was headquartered there until it moved to its North End home in 1932.
The new Casino’s 150-by-50-foot open-air swimming pool included a dome-roofed diving tower with platforms at various elevations. Spectators could watch from surrounding galleries or look out toward the ocean.
Other features included a rooftop “sun parlor” for men, a tanning spot nicknamed the “Browning Club.” The casino also boasted hot- and salt-water bath departments with Russian, Turkish and other “tonic” bath facilities.
Just outside were cabanas and an umbrella-canopied lunch place called Dance de le Mer. There, as The Palm Beach Post then noted, “fashionable folk, after their dip in the surf and quiet nap on the sands, could enjoy their morning Charleston (a popular 1920s dance) to the music of Mr. Tucker’s orchestra or listen to the excellent playing of his famed musicians. Palm Peach is never monotonous in its routine of affairs and the Breakers Casino has done much to make the sport life of the colony one of thrills and sensations.”
In 1925, another devastating fire razed The Breakers, but the Casino survived and was rehabilitated by the time a new, multi-million-dollar reinforced-concrete Breakers opened in 1926.
The Casino continued to be a popular spot for decades until it was demolished in 1968 to make way for The Breakers’ Beach Club. Today, the club, which is open to hotel guests and members, includes four swimming pools, restaurants, bars and bungalows.