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Rolfe Street Baths

When visitors arrive at the Museum they are faced by the impressive three-storey frontage of the Rolfe Street Baths complex rescued from its original location in Smethwick where it had been erected in 1888. The building now houses the Museum’s new reception and exhibition galleries. Built to provide washing and recreational facilities at a time when few houses had running water, the baths were masterminded by Smethwick Local Board of Health, in response to the early Public Health Acts of the 1840s.

The building is a striking example of late nineteenth century civic architecture. The ornamental brickwork and moulded terracotta panels in the false gables of the façade depicting fish, herons and wildlife rarely seen in such industrial surroundings reflect the Arts and Crafts movement of the period. The decorative cast iron arches and columns supporting the curved roof in the pool hall are typically Victorian. The ornate three-storey frontage with the baths entrance and manager’s living accommodation formed an architecturally pleasing screen to the large utilitarian shed-like structures housing the two swimming pools, twenty-eight slipper baths, two showers and municipal laundry.

In 1989 the building was taken down from its Rolfe Street location, preserved and recorded brick by brick before being faithfully re-erected on the Museum site ten years later. Remembered with nostalgia by local swimmers, the large pool halls now house the Museum’s exhibition galleries, and the archive resource centre (open by appointment) is accommodated behind the impressive three-storey façade.

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