Plumber in Paradise
Philip Ilsley built a better swimming pool and Hollywood beat a flutter kick to his door. His brother’s famous, too
NO JOB is ever unusual to Hollywood. Men spend their working hours powdering the noses of actresses, making noises like underfed panda bears and acting as nursemaids to rare African macaws. And thus the town views with a complete lack of astonishment the fact that Philip Ilsley’s sole aim in life is to build swimming pools for the Hollywood masses.
You really aren’t anybody in the movie capital unless you have a private dunking place in your back yard. The local lads and lasses scan their glamourized holes in the ground as casually as their plaid sports jackets. This makes it nice for Mr. Ilsley, a sixth-generation Canadian who was once a farmer in Nova Scotia, for he is the world’s most prolific builder of swimming pools.
Mr. Ilsley has a brother, James Lorimer Ilsley, who is famous as Canada’s Minister of Justice and delegate to the United Nations. The Hollywood Ilsley is famous in his own way as president and largest stockholder of the Paddock Engineering Co., a little outfit which will wind up its fiscal year at the end of this month with a score of 400 new swimming pools installed, ranging from lake-sized bodies of water for hotels and hospitals to what the organization affectionately terms “The People’s Pool,” retailing at $2,500. Financial returns to April 1 aren’t yet complete on the books, of course, but in the first half of the year concluding the Ilsley organization took in $950,000 just for building swimming pools, and another $300,000 for repairing and servicing them. These figures are admittedly
dwarfed by the kind the Ottawa Ilsley used to toss around when he was minister of finance, hut the Hollywood branch of the clan obviously isn’t starving.
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Plumber in Puradise
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Now 51, dark-haired, mustaehed, blue-eyed and a stocky, tweedy extrovert, Philip Ilsley is thoroughly calm about liis strange occupation. He has lived in Hollywood long enough to be surprised at nothing, not even the whims of his customers. When Ginger Rogers asked him to build her a pool on the top of a mountain, he merely nodded. When Jack Benny requested a life-sized octopus on the floor of his, he designed a bas-relief so realistic that, a month later, Mr. Benny complained it was scaring the daylights out of his daughter and tier friends and demanded that the eyes, at least, be toned down to a less terrifying degree. When one wealthy noncinemaite decided that his pool was not long enough and, through six years, added more and more sections until it reached the incredible dimension of 320 feet (plus Venetian bridges and gondolas), Mr. Ilsley just cashed the cheques his labor brought him and went on to the next job.
He has not been in the racket long, yet he thinks it’s the finest in the world. Previous to 1939 he did many things in an attempt to find his particular niche and to make money. He never starved at these, but he did not exactly belong to the caviar class, either. Now, however, he hobnobs with clients like Sinatra and Hope, (who wanted pools for their Palm Springs estates) and Marian Davies (vtho has ordered five for various houses she owns) and Deanna Durbin, Norma Shearer, Lauritz Melchior, and . . . well who doesn’t own a swimming pool these days? •
Ilsley was born at Somerset, N.S., where it was usually too cold even to think of swimming. With brothers James and Alfred and sister Lillian, he arrived to brighten the lives of Randal and Catherine Ilsley, two schoolteachers who had retired to become farmers. Papa Ilsley could trace his Canadian heritage back to 1750. Mama could get hers back three generations. And to this day the family is proud of that.
Son Philip was born in 1896 and was, like Jamt« and Lillian, (Alfred died as a child) tutored by bis parents for most of his grammar school years, meanwhile learning farming the hard way. The I Is leys were so well-versed in their late profession that Philip entered high school at 10, and graduated from Truro Agricultural College at the venerable age of 15.
He attacked the Nova Scotia soil for four years, during which World War I raged in Europe. But his consistent bad health forced him to give up at last and seek the comparative comforts of Wolfviile, where he enrolled at Acadia University. After that, things got slightly confusing, for Philip plunged into his new life with abandon. He alternated between Acadia and a job in the biology department of the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph, kept an eye on the man who had rented the farm, and got married at 20 to Vesta Pick, who ultimately bore him daughters Dorothy and Betty. He also went into the real-estate business after a time, with such signal success that he shortly afterward had $60,000 to show for his labors.
But he was restless and when in 1920 he heard that California was—as always — swarming with real-estate deals,he took off for the balmy breezes. And for the next four years he fought a losing battle trying to convince himself that real estate was the most charming entity in the world. It didn’t work. Land itself was wonderful ; doing things with it were fine; but the haggling, the deals and all the rest of it made life a shambles.
For a while he gave up the game. He opened a couple of florist shops with another man. He sold a health gadget. He finally went East, still looking for something interesting, and wandered to Duluth, Cleveland, and New York. But at last he returned to The Promised Land and has lived there ever since. During these years his first wife had divorced him after a long separation, the church had annulled a brief second marriage to a Roman Catholic girl named Irene Kelleher (which had resulted in daughter Mary Catherine) and Ilsley had taken as his third bride his first, wife’s sister, Mildred, who happened to be visiting in California. With her, he fell back into the real-estate business and managed to withstand the ’29 crash.
In the 30’s, he began buying land in
Brentwood, now the most gilt-edged spot in Los Angeles county but then a bare expanse of rolling hills, almost free for the asking. Ilsley started developing his holdings, putting up houses for the onrushing customers. When he met a man named Pascal Paddock, who had been experimenting with the construction of swimming pools for years, Ilsley thought it might be nice to add to the glamour of his blossoming landscape.
Ilsley Takes Over
Paddock had dreamed up two ideas which were of immense value in making pools permanent and pretty: monolithic construction, where the whole pool shell was made in one piece, and the use of silicite plaster instead of weathervulnerable paint as an interior finish. Ilsley asked him to put in a couple of his pools and watched the work like a hawk as it continued. The result was that he had fits, great idea, “the introcurved wall,” which means in plain English that t he pool is rounded instead of square on all underwater corners.
When Paddock offered Ilsley a job as consultant to his company Ilsley jumped at the chance, for he had found that pool building combined all the things he liked about working with the soil and skipped all the others he hated. When, a month later, he discovered Paddock was actually going bankrupt in a wheelbarrow, he purchased the whole organization for the astoundingly small sum of $17,000.
Ilsley’s activities now support a big office in Hollywood, smaller ones in San Mateo, near San Francisco, and in Palm Springs, and the company is beginning to license men in Phoenix and other places as Paddock construction representatives. All this brings the boss an income ranging from $60,000 to $100,000 a year, a shiny new Buiek, a largish ranch, a town house under construction, and various valuable pieces of real estate.
Strangely, he himself does not own a swimming pool at present: he was divorced from his third wife a year ago and she still occupies the house which sported his last one. He’s rushing a new hillside shack to completion, however, and he promises that a 50-foot-square job will go with it.
The denizens of Hollywood keep him busy, though, and would keep a less
blasé citizen’s eyes popping. He batted nary an eye when Carl Laemmle, Jr., asked that the Paddock men build caves of coral at various spots along his pool’s sides, caves into which the water could flow to make interesting swimming for his guests. He nodded sagely when the King Brothers, a pair of independent producers, declared that behind their extremely formal house they wished a mountain stream to spring forth, complete with waterfall into a mountain lake—the falls to be lit up like Niagara.
For the Beverly Hills High School, Ilsley drew the plans for a complicated hydraulic diving platform which rises at a button’s first push, comes down at the second, disappears completely on the third, and thrusts a basketball court over the water on the fourth. (You may have seen this extraordinary gadget in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” by the way: Jimmy Stewart and Jane Wyman were at a dance and fell in.) And for Janet Gaynor and Adrian, Ilsley’s men installed special seats on the pool floor, so the happy pair could sit with their heads out of water and chat in absolute comfort.
As you can see, when Hollywood feels like ado ng to its ego it sends for a Paddock man and on an ordinary job the customer is swimming happily in three weeks.
However, the Hollywood householder who orders a Paddock pool may be reduced to a state of bewilderment by the endless procession of overa lied artisans parading through his back yard during the three weeks of installation. After a “sight survey” when the pool’s size is decided on (20 by 45 feet is about average for movieland) plans are submitted—then the fun begins. Mechanical behemoths park at the front door, strange contraptions are toted down the driveway, and peculiar noises float up from the deepening pit.
A power loader first tears into the back yard for the rough exca/ation, followed by a crew doing the fine excavation by hand. This part is vital for Paddock pools rest directly on the ground, not on a special foundation. Next, plumbers lay on piping for drains, clean water inlets and a line for the vacuum cleaner (you heard me!). Then a steel crew lays the ingenious structure which is the secret of the Paddock process—a two inch steel-wire mesh that is laid down in the shape the pool’s shell is to take. Finally, the cement is blown into the mesh under pressure.
It’s called Gunite cement, a type óf concrete made with extra-fine, extrahard sand and cement—mixed dry, blasted through a hose and then mixed with a small amount of water as it passes through the nozzle of the hose. The resultant goo hits the desired spot with terrific force and when dry forms a concrete shell two or three times as solid and durable as most other types. The Gunite is cured by water spraying for three days, after which the tile, cast-stone coping and flat trim are laid around the pool’s upper edges.
Paddock pools are designed never to be drained, in fact, Ilsley and his men turn pale when someone suggests doing it. Draining, you see, absolutely ruins the permanent silicite plaster finish. And also it destroys the delicate balance between the weight of the. water inside the structure and the weight of the ground outside, so that, if you do drain your pool, you may hear large cracking noises some night and resign yourself to taking your exercise on a golf course in the future. So while the pool is being built another of Mr. llsley’s crews installs a small bét ingenious filter plant which gradually sucks in the water, plus all the suspended dirt, does a few flip-flops with it, and spews it back into the pool minus grime. - . f
And then there’s that vacuum cleaner. This collects the “heavy” dirt from the bottom of the pool. It doesn’t beat as it sweeps as it cleans, but it has a rotary brush, sueles water instead of air, and my secret ambition at present is to work one.
Our pool is now ready to be'slathered with a half inch of silicite plaster finish, this because there is no paint on the market at present which will stand up for more than two years. ' And it’s beautiful.
Finished and the plaster dried, the pool is ready to be filled. Fourteen thousand gallons of water are filtered for three days until they reach that perfect clarity you see in Esther Williams pictures, and then a final inspector looks over the whole job. If everything is okay, he instructs the householder in the care and feeding of his new acquisition and the minute he disappears a large splash is heard: Joe Doakes has dived in. It isn't only people dive into Hollywood’s pools. The classic disaster occurred recently to movie actor Joe Gotten. Mr. Gotten has a car, a rather large car, four-doored, glistening and beautiful. One day he missed it. He searched frantically around (and perhaps through) his house. No car. He phoned the police. They also searched. No car. He phoned his insurance company, reported sadly that the car seemed to have been stolen and heard the honeyed words from the company’s representative that they’d be delighted to get. him a new one. He sat down, torn between grief, confusion, joy, and a few other things. And then he heard a shout from his wife in the back yard. Mrs. Gotten had found the car—under eight feet of water, doing the side stroke.
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Hollywood’s Mr. Ilsley will build you pools in the shape of mountain lakes, pools with rippled sides, square pools, round pools, kidney-shaped pools, or pools looking like doughnuts—but not for $2,500. During the war, for example, the Paddock company put in some pools big enough for the Olympics, or bigger. There wore over 60 installations done by the company for the armed forces (principally to teach sailors how to swim) some of which incorporated boat-launching platforms. Each pool cost about $100,000.
Ilsley has a special word for his native Ganada, by the way. He says that outdoor pools are eminently practical in rugged climates, providing the filter equipment is in a frostproof housing. And, too, the Canadian must settle for less colorful tiles than the Californian, as severe weather cracks the bisque type used in the south.
Should you drain a pool in Canada? No, indeed, says Mr. Ilsley.
And look what that gets you in the winter, brothers: a skating rink in your own back yard ! ★