An all-tile pool stands the ultimate test of time

June 1, 2010

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The SS President Coolidge had two outdoor swimming pools—a first class pool was located on the sun deck and a second class pool (a temporary canvas structure) was located above a cargo hold.

By Barry Justus

Swimming pool, spa and water feature builders/designers are often asked about interior finishes. There are certainly many choices on the market today, with a wide variation of colour, design, feel, durability and price.

Today, all-tile pools have become increasingly popular, especially in the high-end market. The type of tiles used in pool construction is key to longevity. Those suitable for pool construction include glass, porcelain, ceramic and natural stone.

Porcelain tiles are fired at a very high temperature, making them very dense and durable, with a water absorption rate of less than 0.5 per cent. As such, they are well suited to the harsh environment found in swimming pools, spas and water features.

If there were any doubts as to the durability of an all-tile pool finish, consider the following.

Early pool construction

The first swimming pools were constructed around 2500 BC, comprising a hole lined with bricks and waterproofed with tar. The Greeks and Romans also constructed swimming pools, while modern tile pools gained popularity in the middle of the 19th century in London, England.

In 1907, the RMS Adriatic of the White Star Line was the first cruise ship to have an indoor swimming pool. Tiled saltwater swimming pools became very popular on luxury cruise ships during this time period.

The 1920s saw a period of rapid economic growth in the United States; by the time the 1930s rolled in, despite the Great Depression, a large number of luxurious cruise ships were constructed. In an era before commercial jet service, the well-heeled travelled by ship.

One vessel in particular, the SS President Coolidge, named after the 30th U.S. president, was launched on Feb. 21, 1931, when a bottle of water was smashed over the bow of the 198-m (654-ft) vessel. (Prohibition prevented the use of a traditional bottle of wine.)

The luxury vessel held 990 passengers and 324 crew members. It had a range of 36,114 km (19,500 nautical miles) and carried 2,357,229 kg (2,320 tons) of fresh water. First-class passengers had the run of the upper levels, including staterooms equipped with porcelain saltwater baths with hot and cold running water, porcelain toilets and fresh-water showers. Second and steerage-class passengers had more spartan accommodation.

Two outdoor swimming pools

The impressive ship also had two outdoor swimming pools. The first class pool was located on the sun deck behind the superstructure and finished in a beautiful porcelain mosaic tile.

The 25.4 x 25.4 mm (1 x 1 in.) tiles were bonded onto the steel surface, supporting the weight of the water above. A large freeboard, above the water line, held the contents of the pool as the ship rolled in the ocean waters. Various sources, including a schematic of the ship, indicate a sand beach was located adjacent to the first class pool. Photographs of the ship, however, do not bear this out.

A sunbathing area and shade structure completed the landscape portion of the pool design. The pool contained saltwater from the ocean; fresh water would be at a premium onboard a ship.

The second class pool was a temporary canvas structure. It was located above cargo hold number six and had very little in the way of luxuries. This saltwater pool had no filtration or heating system, as fresh water could be added from the ocean; old water was simply dumped back into the sea.

Called to duty

In 1941, the SS President Coolidge was converted to a troop carrier. Stripped of its luxury fittings, the ‘Lady,’ a 3-D ceramic wall fresco, was covered up and the second-class swimming pool was sacrificed to create more cargo space. The tiled, first-class pool, however, remained in use for military passengers.

The ship was also painted grey and mounted with guns. A large number of porcelain toilets were also added to accommodate the 5,000 soldiers who were travelling into battle.

On Oct. 26, 1942, the SS President Coolidge struck two ‘friendly’ mines en route to Espiritu Santo Vanuatu. The South Pacific town had been converted into a large military base as a staging ground for the ongoing assault on Guadalcanal Solomon Islands.

The ship was deliberately run aground in order to save the troops on board. Eventually, it settled on its port side with its bow 21 m (70 ft) underwater and its stern sunk approximately 73 m (240 ft).

Standing the test of time

In modern times, the well preserved SS President Coolidge has become one of the world’s best wreck dives and home to the ‘world’s deepest accessible pool.’

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Even after 68 years under the ocean water, the swimming pool appears to be in perfect condition. The coloured porcelain tiles and grout are virtually in the same condition as the day the ship sank.

The ship provides a spectacular dive site, as it is located close to shore in warm clear tropical waters, though most sites are very deep for recreational divers. The famous ‘Lady’ is located 43 m (140 ft) in the interior of the ship in the first class dining saloon.

The highlight for pool contractors is the swimming pool, which is located at a depth of 58 m (190 ft). With the ship lying on its port side, the pool lies in a vertical position.

Upon inspection of its tiles, grout and handrails, the pool appears to be in perfect condition, even after 68 years under the ocean water. It is absolutely amazing to see the coloured porcelain tiles and grout in virtually the same condition as the day the ship sank. All the tiles are intact and the colours are still vibrant.

Some of the superstructure of the ship has deteriorated over time, but the porcelain toilets, bathtubs, plates and especially the tiled pool, have survived the tests of time and nature.

With this in mind, a pool builder/designer can introduce his clients to the benefits and long lasting beauty of a fully tiled swimming pool with ultimate confidence.


Justus_HeadshotBarry Justus is the owner of Poolscape Inc., a landscape contractor and pool designing and building company based in Burlington, Ont. He can be reached at[3].

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