On its 50th anniversary, a history of how Bolton Hill’s swim club was born

The Bolton Swim and Tennis Club is turning 50 in 2024. This is part of the history of the club, how it was founded, how it struggled, and how it grew to its current size. It is based on interviews with club members, former and current, on newspaper stories and on club records.

The club came into being because of restless kids and their persistent parents.

Summers in the city were hot and sticky in the 1970s and back then the children of Bolton Hill were often ferried to distant waters by their harried parents. One such stressed mother was Danute Armstrong, who lived then with her husband Brady and their two boys, Yon and Paul, at 247 West Lafayette Ave.

Danute used to haul her boys to the Severn River to swim and to Druid Hill Park to play tennis. “There was a need for a pool,” she recalled. “All of us who had small children felt it.” Similar refrains were heard in households of the late Frank and Lottie Shivers on the 1400 block of Bolton St., the Stanley Panitz family (he developed and lived in Bolton Square on West Lafayette), and the VanDyke household on Bolton street.

Lottie Shivers recalled that one sweltering summer day in early 1970s, “Judy VanDyke came into our living room and said, ‘Frank, we have to get this pool.’” Judy VanDyke had been carting her two sons to a pool on Walker Ave. “It was a long trek. We had little kids and needed a place for them to swim,” she said.

Adults wanted to swim as well. Perched on the third floor of their unairconditioned home near Lanvale and Park avenues, Eliot Zulver and his wife, Sally Gold, could hear frolicking in the pool at nearby Sutton Place (now ReNew Mt. Vernon). “We would be listening to the activity on the diving board,” Eliot recalled, “and it was driving Sally crazy.”

And so the burgeoning effort to build a neighborhood pool and tennis courts began. It was the second such effort. The first in the late 1960s met with failure.

That first plan called for building a pool on a plot of urban renewal land on the 100 block of McMechen Street, across the street from Mount Royal Elementary on the site that subsequently became Founders Green housing for students at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The idea of building a private club on urban renewal land was contentious, with charges and counter charges filling the pages of local newspapers.

Opponents of the pool were led by Rev. Clifford C. McCormick of Strawbridge United Methodist Church on the 1600 block of Park Ave. (a church that is now about to become apartments). Rev. McCormick contended that the proposed pool site should be used for construction of low-income housing rather than an “exclusive” club. Opponents depicted the plan as a taunt to black families recently displaced by urban renewal. Richard N. Stein , an organizer of the proposed club, countered that the facility would be open to all races and that the facility was needed to keep residents from fleeing to the suburbs.

Spirited letters to The Sun argued the pros and cons. Two prominent black politicians, Councilman Henry Parks and State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell, spoke in favor of the club at a public hearing, noting that it would be integrated and that taxes paid by the club would benefit the city. Parks later became a member. Opponents characterized the politicians as tokens and said that the membership fees would be unaffordable for most black residents.

In 1967, about 90 families had signed up for membership in the fledgling club. But organizers needed about 200 memberships to start, and the subscription drive was suspended while waiting for approval from the urban renewal commission. In April 1968 Baltimore erupted in riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Guard soldiers occupied the city, some keeping vigil in Bolton Hill vestibules. With tensions high, no approval came from city hall and plans for what had been dubbed the John Street Club became dormant.

The concept was resurrected in 1972. By then the mood in the city had changed, yet getting the club off the ground was still a struggle. The new mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, backed the idea with reservations. “I had to convince him that 20 to 25 percent of the memberships were from outside the ZIP code 21217,” Jim Wright, a former pool president, explained.

Roadblocks from city officials disappeared this time around. According to Sidney and Janet Leech, who were backers of the renewed effort, a crucial element of the launch was engineered by Robert Embry Jr., then head of the city’s housing and community development office. That office granted the club an option in July 1973 for a recreational project on the lot at Bolton and Dolphin streets. “Without Bob Embrey it never would have happened,” Sid Leech recalled.

Nevertheless, before construction could begin memberships had to be rounded up.  Organizers knocked on the doors of their neighbors, showing them a green brochure that outlined the plans for the club and asking for a $25 check, initial payment of the yearly dues of $250. Early signers became charter members.

“We had meetings in people’s houses,” Lottie Shivers recalled. Some early signers like Michael and Helen Weiss heard about the club by word of mouth. “Helen and I were living in Horizon House on Calvert St. in 1973,” Weiss recalled, “and Eliot (Zulver) came over and said since we had already bought a house on Bolton St., we should write a check to join the club…so we did.”

Walking near her home in the 1200 block of Bolton, Louie Wilder saw a sign reading “the future home of the Bolton Swim and Tennis Club.” “So, I got on the list,” she recalled. Another early joiner was Doug Kelso, then living in an apartment on Bolton overlooking the site. “As soon as I saw a shovel in the ground, I signed” recalled Kelso, who later served as club president.

There was an initial risk to putting up the money, Lynn Ransdell Cripps recalled. Organizers warned that if they couldn’t get financing and the facility was not built, the money would be lost. As the mother of two young boys, she thought the risk was worth it. So did many other Bolton Hill families.

Financing was secured and architects were hired. One was Brady Armstrong, a Bolton Hill resident. “Brady worked with Bernie Wolf, Charles Brickbaurer and Warren Peterson to design the pool,” Danute Armstrong, Brady’s wife, recalled.

In February 1974 a contract was awarded to J.H. Williams Inc. The total project cost was $327,000 with an expected completion date of June. A message from the club’s president, Frederick N. Griffith, warned that any “sidewalk superintendents” should relay their suggestions about construction not to workers but to Stanley Panitz, a club member who was chairman of the building committee.

–Rob Kasper