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$3.2 million later, Tampa reopens historic Cuscaden pool

This 1978 photograph gives a bird’s-eye view of Cuscaden Park pool, which was closed in 2009 but reopened Saturday after more than $3 million in repairs by the city.

TAMPA — It's been something like 60 years since Charlie Miranda and Yvonne Yolie Capin learned to swim at the old Cuscaden Park pool.

But when they stepped onto the elevated deck at the newly renovated pool, which reopened Saturday, the memories flooded back.

How kids had to wear metal tags stamped with their locker numbers on their ankles to swim.

How they walked through a shallow basin of extra-chlorinated water on their way to the pool because so many went barefoot in the 1940s and '50s.

How a guy known as "Barracuda Jack" dazzled the crowd on the high-dive — except for that time he landed on the board, on his head.

How Manny DeCastro the truant officer chased Miranda and his baseball teammates out of the pool when they jumped the fence after it closed.

How all of Ybor City seemed to turn out on Saturday mornings before heading to a matinee at the Ritz Theater.

"Omigod. This is so beautiful," Capin said during a tour the day before the historic pool's reopening. "How many kids do you think were here on a Saturday?"

"You couldn't see the water," said Miranda, 75.

"This must have been the noisiest place in Tampa, with hundreds of kids just screaming and yelling," said Capin, 66. "It was nonstop."

And that's what Capin and Miranda, along with their City Council colleagues, hope returns to Cuscaden after nearly 20 years of decay, patchy fixes and disuse.

The pool last closed in 2009, and residents of the V.M. Ybor neighborhood spent five years working to get it reopened. It was after the real estate crash, and money was tight at City Hall. Council members, most often Frank Reddick and Mary Mulhern, who has since left the board, pressed Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration to budget the job.

"It would have been something that would have been easy to just stop talking about," said Kim Headland, past president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association. But repairing the pool preserves a city landmark, creates a safe, supervised place for local youth and will encourage healthy living. And, she said, "it's a huge source of community pride, and it will be for decades to come."

Ironically, however, while Reddick agitated the most to fix the pool, he didn't learn to swim there.

Growing up as a black kid during segregation, Reddick heard about the pool but didn't go there because he wouldn't have been allowed in. Still, a few years back he brought in photos of mold and graffiti in the empty pool because he says when pools in poor neighborhoods are neglected, it's children who are punished. And though he's a nonswimmer at age 60, he looked forward to taking his shoes off and wading into the pool at its dedication.

Repairs were originally expected to cost $1.8 million. They ended up costing nearly $3.2 million.

That's because Buckhorn, once he committed to the task in 2014, approved a more expensive fix to seal the cracks that repeatedly shut the pool down and a heater for year-round use. As part of the job, the city installed an enhanced liner with a 20-year warranty.

"It was complicated," Buckhorn said. "Those old pools need to be handled with kid gloves because they're elevated."

Like the Roy Jenkins Pool on Davis Islands, Cuscaden was designed by Michigan engineer Wesley Bintz, known for creating above-ground pools that essentially sat inside buildings. The side wall of the pool might have locker rooms on one side and 11 feet of water on the other. Bintz designed about 135 pools nationwide, many now long gone, but a few are on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Tampa, the oval-shaped pool at Cuscaden Park on N 15th Street was built in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration project, with red-brick walls and art-deco flourishes. The park was named for former City Council and School Board member Arthur W. Cuscaden. But over the years, all that water put pressure on the walls, and cracks allowed water to leak down into the surrounding structure.

With the leaks out of control, the city closed the pool in 1997, spent $2.5 million on repairs in 2005, closed it again in 2009 and briefly debated demolishing it and starting over in 2013.

The restored pool has a few features the old pool didn't have: A room for yoga. Shady canopies and water fountains on the deck. A splash pad for little kids. A chair lift to help disabled swimmers in and out of the water. But it lacks the old high dive and is 6 feet deep, not the original 10 or 11.

No matter. When Capin saw the restored pool, it was like she was a first-grader again.

"I don't want to leave," she said at the end of the tour. "I want to get in and do a handstand."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com. Follow @Danielson_Times

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