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Fifty years of floating Centennial fun

Soon-to-be-replaced pool was so busy, kids swam in shifts

Terry Propersi remembers how glorious it felt swimming in rain at Centennial Pool as a kid. Later, as a teenaged lifeguard and swimming teacher at the open-air pool, the rain wasn’t as pleasant.

“I had to remember that feeling because it was pretty cold and miserable being out on deck while the kids were all warm and toasty in the water,” she said.

Built in 1958, Centennial Pool was once Richmond’s only public pool. Still one of the city’s biggest, the pool is now enclosed and part of Minoru Aquatic Centre, which soon will likely only be a memory.

A new pool facility is now under construction steps away in Minoru Park. Scheduled for completion in two years, the pool will be housed inside the $79.6-million Minoru Complex. Two separate, six-lane pools stretching 25 metres are planned, as is an expansive leisure pool and two hot pools.

In a small way it will pay homage to Richmond’s first open-air pool with a sculptural raincloud periodically showering swimmers, just as real rainclouds did at Centennial. 

Centennial was the city’s first major recreational development, made possible through the purchase of land that’s now Minoru Park. The outdoor pool was so popular when it opened that kids had to swim in shifts.

Fifty years of floating Centennial fun_0
Children play in the wading pool outside Steveston Community Centre in the early 1970s. City of Richmond Archives photo

Propersi, who worked at Richmond’s pools in the ‘70s and ‘80s, remembers parents sitting in lawn chairs watching their kids from behind a chain link fence. On the last day of swimming lessons, each nervous young swimmer would climb the high diving board as their parents looked on. 

Not all had the courage to jump.

Centennial was a big part of childhood for many locals. Swimming lessons started at the chilly hour of 7 a.m., and treats like sponge toffee and Roman nougat bars could be had from the concession post-swim. In the early 1970s, admission to the pool was just 15 cents for kids, and the entire pool could be rented for $20 an hour.

A flood of memories from the pool’s early years have spilled onto the Facebook group “You grew up in Richmond, BC if you remember...” In one post, Brenda Wilson remembers getting 25 cents from her parents—15 for admission, 10 for goodies. “I think my parents thought it was a good trade off for a day’s babysitting. I, or we if my brothers came, would be dropped off at opening time and picked up in the afternoon.”

In another post, Lisa Devitt said she took early morning lessons at the pool: “Then, I waited and played in Minoru Park until the pool opened for public swimming, where I stayed all afternoon. That was my summer daycare while my single mother worked.”

Civic politicians were keenly aware of the pool’s popularity. In its first dozen years, Centennial was the only pool in town, apart from wading pools at King George Park, South Arm Park, Steveston Park and Minoru Park, along with school parks at Gilmore and Dixon. There was one other, but it was small and in the basement of the former Mitchell elementary school building at No. 5 and Cambie roads.

In 1968 politicians commissioned a study of swimming facilities. Unsurprisingly, the study found a need due to a rising population and growing leisure time.

A new outdoor pool arrived at Steveston Park in 1970, according to Bill McNulty’s Steveston: A Community History. In 1972, the city built another at South Arm. Its official opening included a ceremony that featured “three young charmers,” according to archives records: South Arm Sardine Queen Miss Debbie Pelech, First Princess Miss Leanne Skinner and Second Princess Miss Andrea Price.

New Minoru pool design
The new Minoru pool as designed by HCMA architects

Minoru Park’s pool facility grew in 1977 with the opening of the Minoru Aquatic Centre, built for $1.88 million that included a $100,000 contribution from the Woodward’s department store chain. In 1984, an enclosure was completed for Centennial Pool as part of a $1.3-million upgrade project.

Watermania arrived in 1997, and, starting in 2017, the Minoru Complex pool is scheduled to welcome swimmers for the first time. Its “Errant Rain Cloud,” designed by artists Germaine Koh and Gordon Hicks, should also be ready to offer an intermittent shower of rain—and maybe even a memory or two.