For decades, York’s underground comfort stations spelled relief

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The comfort stations under York’s Continental Square have historical origins. Background posts: Foustown now a ghost town: Raid there once netted 300 barrels of quality firewater, Brewery profits produced landmark West York mansion, ‘Good grief, how long has that pool been here?’

Tourists looking at downtown York’s many sites may wistfully view winding steps leading to the closed-down Continental Square comfort stations.

Up to 1978, these underground restrooms, nearing their 80th birthday, were consistently open.

Since then, they’ve been closed, opened and then mostly closed, depending, in part, on the financial condition of the city.But these restrooms are grounded in history… .


Liz Williams, who did graduate work on these unusual men’s and women’s restrooms, says their construction coincides with Prohibition.
The closure of bars meant a dearth of public restrooms.
After controversy over whether the public sector should build them, the square was excavated. In short, as drinking went underground, so did the comfort stations.
The station had showers, a barber’s chair, lockers and a shoe-shine spot. The women’s side had a bath tub.
Their closure on one particular night made big news.
On V-J Day - the end of the World War II on Aug. 14, 1945 – the square erupted in celebration.
The comfort station attendants wanted to celebrate, too, so they shut down the facilities. Bars and businesses closed as well so their employees could celebrate.
A square-full of celebrators, and no place to go.
A newspaper reported that thousands were “discommoded.”
At the next city council meeting, Mayor John Snyder criticized the city’s park director’s decision, sparking verbal brickbats.
A 1994 York Daily Record story, excerpted here, tells about early efforts to reopen them during the Robertston administration:

The great department stores that made downtown shopping a family ritual will never return, but one vestige of old York will: the underground restrooms at Continental Square.
This week, on orders of Mayor Charlie Robertson, a squad of plumbers, electricians and maintenance workers began repairing pipes, painting ceilings and switching the water-heating system from natural gas to electric. They’re working against a tight deadline.
The mayor wants the place reopened in time for a giant downtown yard sale planned for April 30. After that, the city will only open the comfort stations, as they’re called, for other downtown events, such as the Olde York Street Fair. The mayor hopes to open them daily next year, but only if he can find the money to hire attendants or organize a volunteer system to staff the stations.
Appropriately, the restoration job went to Barry Altland, the city’s building maintenance and electrical superintendent, who supervised the comfort stations until they were closed because of tight city budgets in 1979.
“I always liked these,” said Altland, his back to a gleaming row of 10 urinals that still function. “”I thought they were unique.”
The comfort stations recall an era of gracious urban living, when cities spent money on first-class public amenities, with less fear that they would be lost to vandals and loiterers. Down the curving stone staircase with a brass handrail stands a barbershop with two chairs that a barber had leased from the city.
“He did a helluva business with the people downtown, especially the lawyers,” Altland said. Glassed-in attendants’ booths stand at separate entrances to the men’s and women’s sides.

Also of interest:

- For another view and more info on the comfort station, see: Prohibition forced drinking of alcohol – and York, Pa.’s restrooms – underground
- Brewery profits produced landmark West York mansion.
- When did York’s square’s name change from Centre to Continental?

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in Archives, all posts, Explanations/controversy, For photo fans, Genealogy/research, Local journalism & Web, Local landmarks, Nostalgia & memories, Unsung/obscure sites, War, World War II. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to For decades, York’s underground comfort stations spelled relief

  1. Josh says:

    I am completely fascinated by these public amenities. At the time, they must’ve seemed like the epitome of modern urban living and today they offer us a reminder of positive ways in which the government can support citizens and infrastructure. The lynchpin to this model working is a communal sense of shared civility, mutual respect and self-reliance. Today there is too much focus on “what’s in it for me?”, not “how can I contribute to the greater good of the community?”.
    I applaud you for documenting this amazing place and sharing the unique offerings of your fine city with the world. I’m seriously considering a trip to York, just to visit these classic comfort stations.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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