God Made the Lakes and the Oceans; Howard Fields Took It from There

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In Cerromar Beach, P.R., there is a resort, the Hyatt Regency, where for as much as $200 a day the jaded traveler can wash off the trail dust by taking a dip in the pool. But it isn't just any pool; it's Howard Fields's River Pool, and you won't find anything like it in your neighbor's backyard.

A patriotic 1,776 feet long, River Pool is probably the longest freshwater pool in the world. It includes 14 waterfalls, four water slides and a subterranean grotto whirlpool. One ambitious water slide starts at the top of a man-made mountain and winds down through a maze of islands, a water meadow and a grotto filled with waterfalls and lush tropical vegetation. Along the way, the passive bather, swept along like a lazily drifting leaf, passes more than 350 palm trees and 30,000 plants. The whole thing takes about a quarter of an hour from start to finish, with 22,600 gallons of water cascading downstream each minute.

The Hyatt "water feature" (that's what Fields likes to call his aquatectural achievements) is one of five he has designed in the last three years. His projects cost as much as $8 million, and Howard Fields & Associates, the company he founded and runs, did $46 million worth of business last year.

Fields, a native of Venice, Calif., and the son of a housewife and a garment manufacturer, dived into the pool business in 1982. A graduate of UCLA, he had spent two years as a building-and-pool contractor and considered retiring to take a round-the-world voyage on his yacht. Instead he decided that retirement would be a lot safer "with a little jingle in the bank," so he bid on the redesign of a Hyatt hotel pool in Burlingame, Calif. He got the job and took to exotic pools like a duck to nonchlorinated water.

Fields, 40, loves waterfalls and lagoons. He has a weakness for the exotic and tropical, and he enjoys working on a giant scale. Water for Howard Fields is what Mount Rushmore was for Gutzon Borglum—a medium in which to leave a large message.

Fields's water features don't always make sense, even to him. At the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale, Ariz., Fields has created what he likes to call "a neoclassical playground for adults." The main feature of the resort is his recreation of a Roman aqueduct. A three-story clock tower rises out of the main pool; a water slide winds down inside the tower. The tower's significance—architectural, symbolic or otherwise—eludes even Fields. "The tower is an anomaly," he says. "What is it doing there? It's just wacko."

Around the mysterious clock tower rise a dozen 16-foot-high glass columns that light up at night. If the effect is romantic, that is exactly what Fields has in mind. "We think really hard about romance," he says. "We want people to hold hands. We want them to use the beds."

Fields also wants them to use the 50-foot-long beach at one end of the Scottsdale megapool. "We went out and did sand research," he says. "We had to find sand that would fall off your body so people wouldn't track it into their rooms or the rest of the pool." They finally found the right kind—500,000 pounds of the stuff—in Monterey, Calif., and had it brought in by truck.

One of Fields's next big projects will be a $5.5 million "water playground" featuring what he calls body locks, at the Grand Hyatt Wailea on Maui. After swimmers have floated down through a maze of tropical scenery and reached the bottom of the roughly 1,000-foot-long watercourse, water will flow into an enclosed area and lift them right back to the top again.

A man of boundless energy, Fields spends at least 40 hours a week in the air in order to visit construction sites and attend business meetings. Says an associate: "I ask Howard to walk around my car once a day just to recharge the battery." When he's not traveling, the divorced Fields lives—where else?—on the water in a 52-foot yacht in Sausalito, Calif.

Like all artists, Howard Fields has a dream. He wants to create a magnum opus, what he calls "an avant-garde project" that will make people talk about him—maybe forever. He envisions "a reverse whirlpool, where people dive in and are centrifugally spun to the outside and over the edge instead of going down the pipe." Sounds visionary, but wouldn't it look a little odd? "Well," says Fields, "you can't really tell people they're swimming in a giant toilet." And which resort will get the benefit of Fields's dream water work? "I don't want to say who's getting it," he says with a smile. "But they're getting it."

—By Michael Neill, with Kristina Johnson in Sausalito

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