You can almost see their reflections in the bronze-framed mirror, waving cans of chemicals over their beehive hair styles. In the background, an older woman hollers, pointing to a sign she made to enforce the hair-spray ban in the women's restroom.
It would have been the 1960s, around the time that Barry Altland got a promotion in York City's public works department. Barely 20 years old, Altland supervised the attendants who worked full shifts to keep the comfort stations clean and orderly.
"At one time there were eight people between the men's and the ladies' side," said Altland, who worked for the city for 40 years before retiring in 2002. "Back in the day, it was a busy place."
Today, the underground restrooms on Continental Square -- once home to a beauty salon, barber shop and shoe-shine stand -- are dirty and deteriorated. Parts of the ceilings are peeling in both the men's and women's bathrooms, the damage caused by the water and weight of decorative tree planters directly above.
But a new day for York's comfort stations might be around the corner.
As part of the Reclaim Continental Square initiative, an architect is drafting a new plan for the four corners that meet at the intersection of George and Market streets. The scope of that project has not yet been defined, nor has its pricetag.
But, almost inevitably, the comfort stations that rest 15 feet below ground will be incorporated into the plan, said Frank Dittenhafer of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.
"It just seems like this would be the logical time," he said.
The history: Built in 1929 to meet the demands of a growing city, York's comfort stations were hardly unique at the time. Restrooms were built beneath town squares in many Pennsylvania cities -- including Lancaster, Harrisburg, Allentown, Reading, Scranton and Easton -- between 1900 and 1930, according to Ann Elizabeth Williams, who published a research paper on the subject in 2004.
Fueled by industrialization and the progressive City Beautiful Movement, York-based organizations started advocating for public restrooms in the early 20th Century. Prohibition, which led to the closing of many bars and hotels, furthered the
Constructed during the administration of Mayor Jacob E. Weaver, the comfort stations cost about $60,000 to build, according to Williams. The restrooms featured brass doors, porcelain water fountains and stalls made of Italian marble.
By 1961, the comfort stations were still popular with the people who lived, worked and shopped downtown, Altland said. Folks paid a dime to use the toilets, though a few toilets were always free of charge.
"The attendants had to polish that brass. Every day they were polishing brass," Altland said. "The attendants that we had were very conscientious and kept them clean."
The facilities were used by people from all walks of life, Altland said. Workers associated with the York Fair stopped by to take showers. Women who shopped at the farmers' markets checked their bags at the comfort stations, then shopped some more. Lawyers from the nearby courthouse showed up for a shoe shine.
Their demise: But the demand at the comfort stations slowed as retailers moved out of the city and into the suburbs, Altland said. The city cut back on its attendant payroll and the hours the stations were open. By 1978, the comfort stations were closed.
The comfort stations have been occasionally reopened in the decades that followed, but city officials have mostly struggled for 30 years to find a suitable use for the facilities, said Jim Gross, the city's public works director.
"There's been a lot of discussion," Gross said. "But nothing has really taken off."
Now, Dittenhafer said he'd like to bring the comfort stations back to life. For now, all of the options are on the table -- even the option to abandon the comfort stations and fill them in with concrete, something Dittenhafer said he'd prefer not to do.
"This is an authentic piece of York's unique history," he said. "It may be the only piece of this type of history left in the state of Pennsylvania."
Dittenhafer said he is considering rehabilitating the restrooms to once again serve their intended purpose. They could serve simply as a storage area for tables and chairs, or as a history-themed visitors center.
Dittenhafer said he'll consider Reclaim Continental Square a success -- including the reinvention of the comfort stations -- "if people want to spend time there, no matter what it is."
"I think that's what we're kind of shooting for here, to come up with something that really supports people wanting to spend time there at the square," he said.
-- Erin James may also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.