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A Bigger Splash

Hollywood and the Beginnings of American Pool Culture

„It was a great big white elephant of a place. The kind crazy movie people built in the crazy twenties”—says Joe Gillis when we first behold the palace of the once-glorious silent film star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”. And he is right, in the crazy twenties there were some incredibly nuts constructions going on in California exhibiting unbelievable wealth. And it was the swimming pool in particular that, as the symbolical shiny gem of these projects, condensed all the displayed luxury and glamour.


Impressive Outset

America’s iconic pool culture began with grandiose fancies regarding both sizes and designs. And true, the line of magnificent pools was opened by two Hollywood legends, the silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who built their 55 feet wide, 100 feet long pool on their property Pickfair in 1920. Pretty impressive for a backyard swimming equipment.

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Another silent movie star, the Russian-born actress Alla Nazimova had her pool shaped like Black Sea and it was lit from underwater. Her estate “Gardens of Allah” became a famous resort and party area of Hollywood stars, writers, socialites for a few decades.

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In the succession of lavish architecture and crazy pools Hollywood celebs were followed and sometimes surpassed by oil tycoons, businessmen, newspaper magnates inspiring the sparkling and dark world of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Raymond Chandler and some of the greatest film noirs.


Wonderful Extremes

There probably wasn’t any private building project in the crazy twenties more monumental and spectacular than the Hearst Castle "La Cuesta Encantada" ("The Enchanted Hill"). The commissioner was William Randolph Hearst, owner of the largest newspaper and magazine business in the US at the time. He was one of those people who so desperately tried to prevent “Citizen Kane”, the first motion picture of Orson Welles, from reaching the public. Although, as Welles stated, “many people sat for” the character Kane, he truly resembles Hearst’s life, just as his fictional palace Xanadu resembles enough “Enchanted Hill” with all his pompous and jaw-dropping excesses. The estate included a zoo, a movie theater, libraries and a private airfield.

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And, of course, two marvelously designed swimming pools. Both pools were meant to mirror ancient Roman and Greek bathing culture. The model for the indoor Roman Pool allegedly was the Baths of Caracalla, and it is decorated with blue and golden mosaic tiles leaving its spectators awed by the sight. The considerable outdoor Neptune Pool is surrounded by ancient style pavilions and colonnades evoking Greek and Roman temples. And by the way, the designs for the whole estate were made by Julia Morgan, the first licensed female architect in California.

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Hollywood Illusion

 “And of course she had a pool. Who didn’t then?” Of course it is Norma Desmond again. The pool in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” is the leading symbol for old luxurious Hollywood that has faded away by the time. The opening scene is the last moment of this world: a young screenplay writer’s dead body floating in a pool. Funny enough, this pool is a fake. The estate was leased to the production by famous oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty’s family, and originally it didn’t have a pool. This one was built by Paramount, but without a circulating system, so outside being a decoration for the film, it was useless—mere illusion.

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