Best of History: Famed Journalist, Writer Paul Pintarich Shared Memories of Rockaway’s Natatorium

By Don R. Best

NOTE: Paul Pintarich was a good friend of Karla Steinhauser’s (of Karla’s Smokehouse), and I met Paul when he was visiting her in 2007 or early 2008. He came back down to see me as the local historian and see some of the old photos and of course my new photos. He asked me, over a cup of coffee, “How’s Karla?” and I replied “LET’S GO SEE HER”…. so we did and then some other exploring about town as well. He sent me several stories about his memories of Rockaway Beach.
Pintarich was a well-known reporter for The Oregonian for over 30 years. Here is a link to his biography.

He sent me this story about Rockaway’s famous Natatorium in 2008.

“Splish-Splash, Brrrr ….. Ahhhh!” Remembering the “Nat”
By Paul Pintarich, 2008
Even today I can remember plunging carelessly into the deep end of Rockaway’s Natatorium, a naïve non-swimming convinced the rumored buoyancy of the “Nat’s” saltwater would keep me afloat: An early “triumph of hope over experience.” As they rose past me, all those silver bubbles in the bright green water were fascinating, I must admit. Until I reached bottom and confronted the dilemma of how to get back up. But no problem. Though I was a chubby little kid, a hand reached down and plucked me to safety, its owner suggesting forcefully that I “… was a dumb little …!”

Inside Rockaway Beach’s Natatorium – Photo courtesy of Don R. Best

You can imagine that rest … Though since that day, and all the days of my increasingly long life, I have never had a fear of water, deep or shallow. In fact, several summers later I taught myself to swim in the Nat. I would paddle about tentatively, farther each day, until eventually I flailed and gasped my way to the pool’s central fountain, pulling myself aboard like an exhausted sea lion. Buoyed by my achievement, and the Nat’s warm saltwater, I eventually swam farther out into the deep end; thus beginning a journey of splashing about in rivers and oceans around the world, eventually concluding in laps at the YMCA.

In those days, the Nat was an imposing two-story landmark whose heated, ocean water pool was a catalyst to Rockaway Beach becoming “The Jewel of the Oregon Coast.” Construction began in 1924, and when it was completed in 1926, the Nat included a pool 50 by 80 feet. There was a wading pool, diving boards and a central fountain raining down warm saltwater. Spectators could watch from a second floor gallery, which was adjacent to a bowling alley, and the pool was open until 10 pm.
In later years, upstairs living quarters were converted into a popular night club, “The Panorama Room” (it’s unofficial sobriquet was “The Pandemonium Room”) which had a great view of the ocean, including the black curved pipe that for decades slurped seawater up and into the swimming pool.
On the eve of my 21st birthday, I happened to be drinking in the Panorama Room when, at midnight, I announced to the bartender, I was finally 21, which was met by a low groan. Still, it was much better than getting thrown out of the non-defunct “Harold’s Club” (No, not that one) as I did one Fourth of July.
When one considers the Nat, you must remember that in my youth, a hardier, more careless time, we just ran down and jumped into the ocean, usually after one or more beers. This was literally breath-taking practice not recommended for brass monkeys or those visiting from Florida or Hawaii. There were riptides, too, of course (no one thought about sharks or rolling logs) but most of the time we made sure the tide was incoming before hitting the waves.
Afterwards, if not having a driftwood fire on the beach, we might sprint quickly to the Nat, there, in those days before wet suits, to plunge into its warm embrace until our blue bodies turned red again.
In its last years, the Nat became home to a recreation center for teenagers, featuring billiard tables, snack bar and music for dancing. In 1967, however, it met its demise after Oregon State Parks Division replaced it with the present Rockaway State Wayside.
Yet even today, as I drive into Rockaway after many years, I miss the old place and its capacious, other-century grandeur. It should still be there, I think, echoing with memories and little-kid laughter; a wonderful anachronism of the kind disappearing all too quickly these days.