In Defense of the Aboveground Pool

A group of white young adults lounge around an above ground swimming pool in a sprawling backyard. Illustration shows that above ground pools are popular during the coronavirus pandemic.

With public swimming options limited because of the pandemic,
this backyard classic is finally getting its due.

The Briley family lived on a cul-de-sac full of nondescript
taupe ranch homes, and when I was growing up, every kid within a
one-mile radius knew three things about the Brileys. We knew that
Bear, their ancient dog, had only one testicle; we knew that their
grandmother might flick a cigarette at us if she was in a bad mood;
and we knew that they had a highly coveted aboveground pool.

If you rode your bike past the house on any given summer Sunday,
you were likely to hear Molly Hatchet blaring through a tiny boom
box and find Mr. Briley, a locksmith by trade, in that pool, bald
head bobbing up and down like a fishing lure,
Motörhead-style mustache
turned to the sky, smiling. Staring
at him from the hot pavement was the first time I ever saw an adult
look truly relaxed (what can I say, I come from fretful people),
and witnessing the sight made me long for whatever magic by osmosis
the aboveground pool provided to reach such a state of bliss.

Where I’m from in Kentucky, nothing really says “backyard
oasis” quite like having an aboveground-pool, bourgeois in-ground
versions be damned. A conspicuous small-town and suburban point of
pride — or just an excuse to drink with friends and turn wrinkly
— aboveground pools have been a way to trumpet an appreciation
for, and accessibility to, leisure time for the working and middle
class, long before they became the hot-ticket item for summer

With social-distancing recommendations in place for the
foreseeable future and typical summer cooling-off spaces — like
public pools and water parks — either shuttered or severely
restricted, the home pool has become a much-celebrated and
desirable yard accessory. Even for those who weren’t pool-heads
prior to the pandemic, the urge to feel something refreshing —
not just the stale bite of recirculated air-conditioning — has
reached a fever pitch, and aboveground pools have cannonballed into
the spotlight.

For decades, though, aboveground pools have been largely scoffed
at by snobbier sects as massive plastic cauldrons of chlorine that
stick out like blemishes on an otherwise pristine landscape,
whether it be rural, urban, or suburban. If you wanted to swim and
didn’t have an in-ground pool? Lifestyle magazines would suggest
breezing your way into a ritzy hotel pool
, finding a friend of
a friend with a lap pool, or
making plans for a weekend jaunt
to some beach that’s
saltwater-sticky. But finding your aquatic retreat in a pool in
which the water is contained above ground? Oh, no — never that.
The stigmatization, and subsequent snubbing, of aboveground pools
reflects the long-advertised notion that if you’re not capable of
“doing leisure” in the most expensive, high-end way possible,
then leisure shouldn’t be accessible to you at all.

But this summer, oh, how the tune has changed. Aboveground pools
are now perched at the top of everyone’s wish list — and sold
out all over.

“Were people really that desperate?” questioned a
New York Times article from May 2020
about the ultrarich
suddenly searching for aboveground pools as summer plans dried up.
“An aboveground pool in Westport is like a bag of SunChips on a
table at Per Se.”

Unnecessary dig at delicious SunChips aside, this tone reflects
one of the main reasons why aboveground pools have been looked down
on by so-called tastemakers: the laws of supply and demand, of
exclusivity and trend. If everyone can have it, we don’t want it.
But when we can’t have it, it’s worth having, the warped logic
seems to go, whether they’re talking about a summer swimming hole
or the latest pricey capsule wardrobe. Nothing in the design,
stylings, or overall function of the aboveground pool has changed
between last summer and this summer — save for maybe a filter
upgrade from a company or two — but now that the resource is
scarce, it’s fashionable.

The first aboveground pool was crafted in 1907 for the Racquet
Club of Philadelphia and was designed by noted bridge builders
Roebling & Sons Co. (Even today, you can see similarities
between the girdlelike metal ring that holds up aboveground pools
and the steel bridges that connect cities — only one version hems
water in and the other is lifting above it.) By 1947, mass-marketed
aboveground pool kits flooded onto Astroturf lawns as the
post–World War II sprawl saw the rise of “me time” for
middle-class parents and their kids. Soon, aboveground pools were
as common as trampolines, and by 1978, there were at least 150,000
aboveground pools on Long Island alone, according to a
1978 Times feature

Then and now, aboveground pools leave a lot of room for DIY
decorative customization, as owners often swag out their pools as a
way to either make them stand out from, or blend into, their yard.
I’ve seen dozens of aboveground pools surrounded by potted
tropical plants (classic vacation vibes), sponge-painted wooden
latticework circling a pool’s perimeter (shabby-chic style), and
even the sides of a pool painted haphazardly by children
(summer-camp luxe). Others opt for custom-built decks around their
aboveground pools, creating a more faux-in-ground feeling. (I know
a former local firefighter who recently quit his job to make this
kind of built-to-fit decking full time.)

If I were a more responsible person, I’d try to hunt down an
aboveground pool for myself (and believe me, I’ve considered it),
but I know I wouldn’t give it the proper attention — cleaning,
filter changes, chemical treatments — that it deserves. Longtime
aboveground-pool lovers treat these aquatic wonderlands like a
member of the family, or at least a serious part of the household
dynamic, right up there with landscaping and patios. And because
aboveground pools last upwards of 15 years with diligent care, they
know their investment will more than pay off in
summer-after-summer’s worth of memories on a budget.

Of course, now that we’re a few beers deep into the Summer of
the Aboveground Pool, influencers have already felt the need to not
only co-opt them but pretend that they themselves are the
originators (or, at least, the discoverers) of the aboveground
pool. Like so many other cultural touchstones ripped away from
working-class communities (and communities of color), we’re now
seeing the aboveground pool become something that the most
privileged among us want to flaunt as inaccessible and, weirdest of
all, wholly new. Boutique
metal-washtub aboveground mini-pools
are the latest
wannabe-country fad in Austin, while Instagram
bloggers in Joshua Tree
have, for several years now, been
decorating their spin on aboveground pools with custom-made
fire-tile clay. If a group of models is frolicking in a couture
aboveground pool for a Gucci photo shoot by 2021, I wouldn’t be

Fortunately, for the majority of veteran aboveground-pool
owners, these extremely rarefied-air developments don’t matter
all that much. When I hoisted myself over the side of a friend’s
decade-old aboveground pool last summer and plunked down into the
gooseflesh-inducing water, I pretended (as I always do) that I’d
actually managed to climb inside the belly of an old water tower
for a swim. No longer tethered to the earth, my make-believe
aboveground pool in the sky quickly became a sensory-deprivation
tank and reprieve — I was Mr. Briley, minus the mustache! —
until my infant daughter splashed me in the face, giggling. But no
bother. I’m thankful to be brought back down to earth by a new
generation who will appreciate the aboveground pool, even when the
hype is washed out to sea.

Source: FS – All – Architecture 10
In Defense of the Aboveground Pool