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Mayor Anthony A. Williams famously kicks off the summer with a cannonball into one of the District’s public pools. But for many D.C. residents, it’s a long, hot walk to make a cannonball of their own. Only four of the city’s 19 outdoor public pools are located in Northwest. (And one, at the Banneker Recreation Center, is closed for repairs this summer.) That means residents of such neighborhoods as Dupont Circle, Mount Pleasant, and Glover Park are looking at limited swimming options.
More to the point, public poolgoing is hardly fabulous. To take a dip at the Barry Farm Recreation Center, for instance, you’ll have to follow the strictly enforced pre-swim shower policy. If you just want to lounge, you’ll fight for a shady spot for your dingy, faded chaise. And be sure to strip down fast—there’s an unpublished and also strictly enforced no-street-clothes-on-the-pool-deck rule.
You could purchase an expensive gym-and-pool membership, or maybe take some preemptory antibiotics and dive into the Potomac. But there’s a better option, especially for the ethically flexible: crash fancy apartment and hotel pools—landscaped oases from the summer heat, where flowering trees overhang chlorinated seas as poolside loungers sip cocktails in the shade.
Here’s where to do it:
1919 Connecticut Ave. NW
Getting In: The pool is located one level below the main lobby. Go in the front entrance and turn right. Take the stairs down a level and continue straight ahead. Memorize the names of any conferences listed on the lighted board and pretend to be an attendee if you are stopped. Go out the glass doors to your right and cross the patio. Don’t be intimidated by the turnstile and guard cabana, which control access to the gated pool—just follow in the wake of a family, preferably one sharing your ethnicity.
Amenities: The Hilton Washington’s pool is tailor-made for the water-aerobics set. The hotel leaves out several sizes of foam discs on barbells for those who want to try some underwater curls. After weight training, pool crashers can swim laps in two designated lanes. Dry off with a fluffy white towel from the unguarded pile.
Loungeability: There are plenty of chairs, in both the sun and the shade, scattered around the pool deck. Even better, the lounges are covered in a fine mesh, so sunbathers won’t wake up with red stripes from those plastic chair slats.
Water Conditions: The large rectangular pool ranges from 3-and-a-half to 9 feet in depth, and the water was a comfy 84 degrees on a recent visit. The pool is somewhat choppy and crowded with parents teaching their kids to swim. Children who aren’t ready for lessons can splash in the adjacent kiddie pool.
Management Philosophy: Pool and fitness-club manager Laurie Alstrom has never heard of a pool-crashing incident at the hotel and would not comment on how the hotel would respond if there were one. “We have a pool attendant to assist with authorizing proper usage as well as the fact that the hotel has a security department,” says Alstrom. “[Pool crashing] is not an issue.”
Crash Difficulty: moderate
Washington Plaza Hotel
10 Thomas Circle NW
Getting In: To get to the lobby-level pool, go through the main entrance and head toward the elevators. Wait ’til no one is looking, then take a sharp right before the fish tanks. Walk to the outside wall and follow the curve. Exit the doors to your right and walk across the patio. A single, bored-looking lifeguard watches the pool.
Amenities: Because the lifeguard checks out towels by room number, crashers have to settle for soggy ones abandoned by previous guests. However, the hotel does offer complimentary cups of ice water garnished with lemon. Bathrooms are inside the hotel, and the poolside shower appears to have been rigged up with a garden hose.
Loungeability: Shade is hard to come by, and the traffic noise from Thomas Circle can be distracting, but the Washington Plaza is the only hotel surveyed that offers poolside pillows. Oversized blue cushions adorn several chairs, and the soft fabric somehow manages to be waterproof as well.
Water Conditions: The suspiciously unchlorinated-tasting pool ranges in depth from 3 to 7 feet. Most hotel patrons seem to prefer to keep their coiffures dry; only the occasional Australian tourist disturbs the calm seas.
Management Philosophy: Asked how the hotel handles interlopers, food and beverage manager Patrick Grady says, “We don’t have that problem.” While the hotel used to offer memberships to locals, it stopped this summer, he says, to “better serve our guests.”
Crash Difficulty: easy
Holiday Inn Capitol
550 C St. SW
Getting In: The pool is located on the roof of the hotel, so go in through the main entrance, cross the lobby, and take an elevator to the 9th floor. Follow the signs to the pool. A lifeguard stands by the entrance but doesn’t check for hotel keys.
Amenities: Guests at this Holiday Inn will never go home saying, “That was nice, but where were the floaty noodles?” A recent visit uncovered 20 of the foam swim toys floating in or piled beside the small pool. Washcloth-size towels are also piled poolside, and no one stops you from taking six, the number it takes to cover one of the deck chairs.
Loungeability: Flowering bushes don’t quite camouflage the Holiday Inn’s satellite dishes, but several tourists were impressed by the view of the U.S. Capitol dome, the top of which can be seen above the rooftops. The hum of adjacent buildings’ HVAC systems provides a white-noise soundtrack for poolside naps.
Water Conditions: None of these pools are good for diving, but this one would be a particularly bad choice, as it’s 4-and-a-half feet at its deepest point. The upside of such a small pool? It encourages hotel guests to chat with one another and share Smithsonian tips (e.g., the first-lady-dress exhibit is a bore, according to one swimmer).
Management Philosophy: “Our pool is restricted to hotel guests because of the size of the pool and the…large number of people staying at the hotel,” says Dean Wilhelm, the hotel’s general manager. Though people who work at nearby office buildings have asked about pool memberships, the hotel doesn’t have the facilities to support the influx, he says.
Crash Difficulty: easy
2629 Douglas Road SE
Getting In: The pool is located in the center of this sprawling apartment complex, once home to former mayor and current Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. Walk in through the gate, located on the side closest to the management office. The lifeguard, charged with checking for pool passes, appears to lay down the law only with unsupervised children.
Amenities: Adjacent to the main pool is a bathroom and a changing area, as well as several picnic tables and a kiddie pool. There is also ample parking nearby.
Loungeability: This is a rare pool that allows food on its deck, and it even offers tables for picnic lunches. Poolside loungers may find the seating less accommodating; several lounges were missing key slats in the butt region.
Water Conditions: Come on in, the water’s tepid! The small pool ranges in depth from 3 to 6 feet, so it warms up quickly in the sun. Five lap lanes are painted on the pool’s bottom, but there are no ropes to keep kids’ underwater handstand competitions quarantined to the shallow end.
Management Philosophy: The Washington View apartment takes a hard line against pool crashers, according to spokesperson Amy Delima. A nonresident caught sneaking into the pool will be “barred from the premises,” she says, and a resident accomplice will be banned from the pool for a year.
Crash Difficulty: moderate
2501 Porter Street
2501 Porter St. NW
Getting In: Follow closely behind an apartment resident, and try to strike up a conversation so the guards assume you are that person’s guest. Take an elevator to the fifth floor, and head left. If the changing-room doors are locked, turn down the hallway marked “new gardens.” The gate from the gardens to the pool is often open.
Amenities: Adjacent to the pool is a fenced-in field with charcoal grills, picnic tables, and benches. The terraced wood-and-concrete pool deck features a circular garden and two wooden gazebos.
Loungeability: Soak up the sun while laying on faux-rattan chairs and listen to the sounds of chirping birds and buzzing cicadas. This apartment’s pool deck was carved into a tree-spotted hill, so it’s blessed with plenty of shade, as well as falling pollen and leaves. The pool is ringed with chairs that are primarily occupied by tan and fit people.
Water Conditions: The small, shallow pool doesn’t really stand up to its lush surroundings. It’s only 3- to 5-feet deep, but it’s uncrowded—on a recent visit, there were 17 people on the deck for every person actually swimming.
Management Philosophy: Pool crashers are rare due to the high fences surrounding the pool area, says Corinne Rabung, a regional marketing manager for Charles E. Smith Apartments. If someone did attempt it, “Hopefully they would be noticed getting into the area, and they would be asked to leave,” she says.
Crash Difficulty: difficult
3636 16th St. NW
Getting In: The pool is located on the lower level of Building “B.” Follow someone through the locked front doors and past the security desk. Turn left down the last hall, toward the bank of elevators. Take the second elevator—that’s the only one that goes down to the second-floor pool. Follow the signs to the “swim club.” Go through the gender-appropriate changing room and stride past the lifeguard, who only checks for your “swim club” pass if you stop and offer it.
Amenities: The once-glamorous Woodner offers one unique architectural feature: a “floating deck” two stories above the pool. Most of the grand staircase that once connected the concrete platform to another floating deck was removed in a renovation in the 1950s, so you can step down only a few concrete stairs before coming to a sheer drop.
Loungeability: The pool deck can be a noisy place, with Latin music blasting from surrounding open windows. Children gleefully ignore the “no running” signs, and parents yell futilely for them to slow down. Sunbathers with headaches can retire to the lower deck, home to a dozen lounge chairs that are a healthy distance from the ruckus.
Water Conditions: The sock-shaped pool is 3 feet deep near the heel, and it plunges to 8-and-a-half feet at the ankle. There are no lap lanes, but you can trace a route along the black-tile “W” on the pool’s bottom.
Management Philosophy: According to apartment manager Joe Milby, the lifeguard has an easy time guarding the pool from interlopers. “It’s hard to find that swimming pool,” he says. “Not a lot people know it’s there unless they have been in the building before.”
Crash Difficulty: difficult
How to Crash a Pool
Tailgate: If locked doors or gates stand between you and your pool, just follow someone legitimate in. This means that high traffic times—weekdays after 5 p.m. or weekends—are the easiest hours to crash apartment pools.
Use your cell phone: Talking on the phone—no one needs to be on the other end—is a great way to put up a barrier between yourself and the person guarding the pool. The guard doesn’t want to be rude and interrupt, so chat away and glide right through.
Don’t bring a towel: If you’re heading to a hotel pool, leave your towel at home. Act like you’re staying there, and use one of the hotel towels. If a lifeguard is checking linens out to registered hotel guests, just grab an abandoned one from a chair.
Speak a foreign language: Alternately, respond to questions in a rare or made-up foreign language. The pool guard will probably let you pass rather than call for a translator.
And if you get caught… Don’t do what I did. In my five years of crashing D.C. pools, I had never been caught until I took a dip at a Holiday Inn while researching this article. My first mistake was making eye contact with the lifeguard. He said, “Don’t you live in my building?” I should have said some family member was staying at the hotel, but instead I affected an accent and claimed to be visiting from Georgia. At this point, the lifeguard remembered both my name and apartment number. He lives directly beneath me and has, in the past, accused me of midnight clogging. Perhaps to keep the retaliatory dancing to a minimum, he refrained from calling security, and I left of my own volition.
So have not only an alias ready but also a complete story about who you are and why you’re there. If a hotel employee with computer access stops you, claim to have recently checked out. At an apartment pool, say you’re visiting someone—this is especially convincing if you can provide a name or apartment number, both of which can be cribbed from call boxes.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Kyle T. Webster.