History of Parks' Swimming Pools
As another steamy summer approaches, New Yorkers can find relief in one of 34 outdoor pools, 19 outdoor mini-pools and 12 indoor pools in the New York City parks system. Parks outdoor pools are free and open to the public from late June (after City schools let out for the summer) until Labor Day.
The precursor of the modern swimming pool was the public bath. Dr. Simon Baruch (for whom the Baruch baths were named) was a leading proponent of "hydrotherapy" and the possibilities for social reform that followed from providing public baths for "the great unwashed." After decades of lobbying by social reformers, the year 1895 marked a turning point in the public bath movement. Not only did the state legislature pass a law requiring free bathhouses in cities with populations of 50,000 or more but reform-minded William L. Strong won the mayoralty and pledged to construct bathing facilities. The bathhouses were used for bathing, but also when the weather was hot and unbearable, as in the summer of 1906 when long lines at the Rivington Street Bath nearly caused a riot.
By 1911, Manhattan had twelve new bathhouses, most of them in immigrant neighborhoods, and of these bathhouses, a few offered swimming pool facilities. Asser Levy (built in 1908 and then called the "East Twenty-third Street Pool") and Recreation Center 59 (built in 1906 and then called the "West Sixtieth Street Pool") both offered proper pools. (Recreation Center 59 now serves as the main facility for training Parks lifeguards.) The pools on 23rd Street (66' x 25', 70,000 gallons) and 60th Street (60' x 35', 85,000 gallons) were filled using filtered water from the Croton system, which was changed three times a week.
In subsequent years, pools were added at the Baruch Baths on 326 Rivington Street (1917), Carmine Street (1928-29), Rutgers Place (ca. 1910s), and East Fifty-Fourth Street (1915).
Although the facilities that were once public baths are now under the jurisdiction of Parks (as befits an agency charged with recreation and well-being), it was not always the case. Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was built under the auspices of Borough President Edward Riegelmann in 1922.
The Beaux-Arts architecture and neo-classical details of Metropolitan Pool are typical for the period. The pool and bath at Metropolitan were designed by the architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), who also designed Washington, DC's Lincoln Memorial. The Roman Revival bathhouse at Asser Levy Recreation Center (1908), designed by architects Arnold W. Brunner and William Martin Aiken, was designated a New York City landmark in 1974, and the Beaux-Arts bathhouse at Hamilton Fish Park (1900), designed by Carrère & Hastings, was designated a New York City landmark in 1982.
Floating baths existed in New York from at least the early 19th century. They became more popular after the Civil War as public health advocates called for legislation to create municipally owned baths.
The city's first free public floating baths debuted in the Hudson and East Rivers in 1870, expanding to 15 by 1890. The baths were 95 feet long and 60 feet wide, floated on eight pontoons placed four on each side. In the center of each floating bath was a large well divided into two parts, one 93 feet long and 34 feet wide for adults, and one 70 feet long and 8 feet wide for children.
The depth of the water in the large well was 4 ½ feet and in the small one 2 ½ feet. There were 68 dressing rooms opening upon a small gangway around the edge of the well. They were open from late June or early July to early October. In 1911, 1,818,721 patrons used floating baths.
By the 1920s environmental degradation of the city's rivers tainted the floating bath experience, and the facilities were slowly taken out of commission. When Parks took over jurisdiction of Manhattan's nine bathhouses in 1938 after the city charter was revised, the agency refurbished three of the last six remaining floating baths and docked them at 96th Street and the Hudson River; the baths only lasted a couple more years.
Taking its inspiration from the floating baths, the Floating Pool Lady appeared in the summer of 2007, docking in the East River at Brooklyn Bridge Park at the foot of Brooklyn Heights. The facility provided an instant seven-lane 25-meter-long pool for visitors, who also could enjoy volleyball on a 40,000-square-foot manmade beach. The Floating Pool Lady was designed by Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates with a team of engineering consultants and was constructed in the deck of an old cargo barge.
The idea was spearheaded and received major funding by Ann Buttenwieser, founder of the Neptune Foundation and afforded swimmers a panoramic view of Lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and the Statue of Liberty. In 2008, the pool moved permanently up the East River to Barretto Point Park in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, where visitors enjoyed its refreshing waters for another summer.
A new era in active recreation arrived in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Department of Parks assumed jurisdiction over the city's bathhouses and harnessed Works Progress Administration labor to develop a series of outdoor pools for the city.
The WPA swimming pools were among the most remarkable public recreational facilities in the country, representing the forefront of design and technology in advanced filtration and chlorination systems. The influence of the pools extended throughout entire communities, attracting aspiring athletes and neighborhood children, and changing the way millions of New Yorkers spent their leisure time.
The eleven pools were opened within weeks of each other in the hot summer of 1936, bringing relief to thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers. Mayor Firorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses attended packed dedication ceremonies that summer. At Thomas Jefferson Pool, more than 10,000 celebrated the opening, at which the Mayor said, "Here is something you can be proud of. It is the last word in engineering, hygiene, and construction that could be put into a pool."
The pools were not just huge but also examples of state-of-the-art engineering and fine design. The planning team, led by architect Aymar Embury II and landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke, produced a series of distinct complexes, each one sensitive to its site and topography.
Massive filtration systems, heating units, and even underwater lighting provided a more controlled bathing experience than the often treacherous and polluted waterfront currents in which the city's masses had traditionally swam. The palette of building materials was mainly inexpensive brick, concrete, and cast stone, but the styles ranged from Romanesque Revival to Art Deco.
The WPA pools were designed to adapt to off-season uses such as paddle tennis, shuffleboard, volleyball, basketball, and handball. Wading pools were used as roller skating rinks, and indoor locker rooms and changing areas were adapted for boxing instruction and evening dance halls for teens.
With the notable exception of McCarren Pool in Greenpoint , the WPA-era pools were renovated in the 1980s.
There were eleven WPA pools built in 1936:
Astoria Pool, Queens: Opened July 2, 1936, the largest of the eleven WPA pools
Crotona Pool, The Bronx: Opened July 24, 1936, the bathhouse features animal-themed sculptural elements (still visible today) created by Frederick George Richard Roth that illustrate the WPA-funded art of the era.
Hamilton Fish Pool, Manhattan: Opened June 24, 1936, Hamilton Fish Pool was so highly regarded that the US Olympic Team used it for practice sessions on their way to the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Betsy Head Pool, Brooklyn: Opened August 6, 1936, a pool at this Brownsville site dated to 1915 and was one of only two outdoor pools in the Parks system before 1936.
Highbridge Pool, Manhattan: Opened July 14, 1936, the pool literally occupies a significant spot in the city's water-related past, sitting in the shadow of the historic Highbridge Water Tower on the site of the old Highbridge Reservoir.
Thomas Jefferson Pool, Manhattan: Opened June 27, 1936, 10,000 people attended the ceremony celebrating "the last word in engineering, hygiene, and construction."
Joseph H. Lyons Pool, Staten Island: Opened July 7, 1936, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia summed up one of the main goals of the WPA pools, calling the facility "a monument to the progressive government which would not and could not see unemployed men on the breadline. "
McCarren Pool, Brooklyn: Opened July 31, 1936, Greenpoint's McCarren Pool was designed to accommodate 6,800 bathers at a time and its bathhouse was the largest in the system, large enough to serve the thousands that used the pool daily.
Red Hook Pool, Brooklyn: Opened August 17, 1936, 40,000 people attended the opening, leading The New York Times to describe it as "Red Hook's event of the year."
Jackie Robinson Pool, Manhattan: Opened August 8, 1936 and originally known as "Colonial Park Pool," the facility was dedicated at an event featuring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson singing "Battle Hymm of the Republic" to a crowd of 25,000.
Sunset Pool, Brooklyn: Opened July 20, 1936, as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dramatically flipped a switch, activating the pool's underwater lighting system.
Bathhouses Adapt to Becoming Recreation Centers
By the 1930s, the need for bathhouses for "cleansing" purposes diminished, and in 1938, Parks took over jurisdiction of Manhattan's nine bathhouses after the city charter was revised to place recreation facilities with either a pool or a gymnasium under the agency's supervision.
Six of these indoor facilities in Manhattan were reconstructed by the Works Projects Administration in 1940, completely rebuilding and modernizing the pools. Lifeguards at the outdoor pools were given jobs in the winter teaching swimming classes at the revamped facilities. The "floating baths" that were submerged in the East River looking somewhat like fish farm cages persisted into the late 1930s.
The early 1950s brought New Yorkers three more facilities: St. Mary's (indoor) in the Bronx, and Brownsville (indoor) and St. John's (indoor) in Brooklyn. By 1964, there were 17 outdoor pools and 12 indoor pools (29 total).
Did You Know?
The fledgling MUZAK Corporation established in 1934 to transmit music programs on transmission lines without radio waves (an early form of cable) provided music over the public address system at Astoria Pool in the summer of 1938. Parks officials declined to expand the program to other pools the following summer, citing the prohibitive price of $115 a month for each site.
Mini-Pools: An Interim Solution
In 1966, a pilot program under the Lindsay administration to create "portable pools" was started with two pre-engineered, pre-fabricated 20' x 40' aluminum or steel above-ground pools with 6' wide attached wooden decks. The average depth of these pools was between 3 and 3½ feet, and the structures cost approximately $25,000 each. The portable pool program was meant to provide pool facilities to underserved neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs, much the way a portable classroom provides provisional classroom space. These pools were designed to be easily moved as neighborhood needs shifted.
The program was expanded to 10 pools in 1967. Twenty more pools were added in 1968 and 30 more in 1969. The pools were designed for youths 14 and under and over four feet tall and were open from early July to mid-August.
Although each mini-pool was located next to a shower and comfort station, there were no changing areas, and children were to arrive at the site in their swimming suits. By July 1972, Parks operated 72 mini-pools throughout the city, with two more opening in the Bronx later that summer.
As more permanent facilities were built, these temporary structures were phased out. There were 33 from 1985 to 1989, 25 in 1996, and today there are only 19 mini-pools.
In addition, "Swimmobiles" began during the Heckscher administration that literally took pools to the streets to underserved areas.
With the notable exception of Central Park's multi-purpose Lasker Pool and Rink in 1966, pool construction lagged until the construction of 19 new pools in the early 1970s: Claremont, Mapes, Mulally, Haffen, Rosedale, and Van Cortlandt Pools in the Bronx; Commodore Barry, Douglass & Degraw, Howard, Bushwick Houses, and Kosciusko Pools in Brooklyn; Marcus Garvey, Dry Dock, Wagner Houses, and Sheltering Arms Pools in Manhattan; Fisher and Liberty Pools in Queens; and West Brighton and Tottenville Pools in Staten Island.
The pools, opened between 1970 and 1972, were generally referred to as "vest-pocket pools" (an allusion to the "vest-pocket park" trend in the late ´60s and early ´70s that helped transform small lots into "oases of green" for underserved city children).
These pools tended to be a uniform 75' x 60' x 3.5' considerably smaller than the Olympic-sized WPA behemoths (Van Cortlandt, Marcus Garvey, and the Olympic-sized Kosciusko Pools are exceptions).
You may hear the term "Olympic-Sized Pool" much bandied about, but did you know that it refers to any facility that is 165 feet (50 meters) long and 82.5 feet (25 meters) wide?
The first of these pools was opened at Van Cortlandt Park and was designed by Heery & Heery architects. The $1.6 million facility consisted of three pools a wading pool, diving pool, and Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Heery & Heery designed and managed the other pool projects in this era, which were handled in an accelerated manner, owing to the acute need for more recreational facilities. The "systematized" design process explains the standard look of each site, which included cabana-like modules, 24 feet square, made of precast concrete and prefabricated aluminum pool tanks and filter systems.
A Parks press release from the time noted that it was the "fastest construction ever done on a swimming pool," going on to note, "Through the efforts of Major John V. Lindsay a new record was set in the expedition of a capital project . . . a total of eleven months from conception to completion.
Usual time needed for this type of project is two and a half to three years or more." Parks went on to open nine more pools in 1971, a pace not seen since 1936.
For years, Parks has offered free swim instruction to city children. Commissioner Moses launched a free swim program in 1938 as a public safety initiative, in response to the reported 400 drownings each year in New York City.
The "Learn to Swim" instruction also was considered a healthy alternative to "the polluted waters which bound the City." The Parks Department estimated that thousands of people learned how to swim as a result of the lessons. Today, the Learn to Swim Program teaches about 7,000 children each summer.
The Bronx features six outdoor pools, one indoor pool, and two mini-pools.
Don't Miss: Architect Aymar Embury II's art deco interpretation of a French castle and fanciful medallions and ornamental sculpture by Frederick G.R. Roth lining the pool facility at Crotona Park.
Brooklyn features eight outdoor, three indoor, and five mini-pools.
Don't Miss: Kosciuszko Pool in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which opened July 2, 1971 and was designed by Bedford-Stuyvesant native Morris Lapidus (1902-2001), who also built prestigious resort pools such as the Arawak in the British West Indies and Miami Beach's Eden Roc and the Fountainbleau Hotel pool, which was used in the James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964).
Manhattan features 12 outdoor pools, six indoor pools, and four mini-pools.
Don't Miss: Lasker Rink and Pool in Central Park, possibly the first such facility in the country to serve as a pool in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter, designed by Fordyce & Hamby Associates with a refrigeration system that allowed ice to form rapidly its designers claimed it could be a 365-day-a-year facility.
Elsewhere, Carmine Street Pool features a Keith Haring mural and was used in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. Highbridge Pool lies in the footprint of the old Croton uptown receiving reservoir.
In fact, the Highbridge Water Tower survives to this day as a New York City landmark and rises high above the pool just outside the fence on the edge of the steep slope that leads down to the Harlem River.
Queens features four outdoor pools, two indoor pools, and four mini-pools.
Don't Miss: At 330 feet in length, the main section of Astoria Pool is the largest in New York City and hosted the Olympic Trials for the US Swim and Diving Teams at the pool's grand opening on July 4, 1936.
The Aquazanies were a troupe of boys who performed comedy and diving acts in the early 1940s at city pools, including East 54th Street in Manhattan and the Aquacade at Flushing Meadows.
Their home base was Astoria Pool, where they trained under the guidance of pool supervisor Vic Zoble. One Aquazany, Whitey Hart, went on to become a professional diver and was eventually inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Another, Ernest Haridopolos, later served as a Parks lifeguard before becoming a special agent with the FBI, working undercover on the "French Connection" drug investigation and "Abscam" sting operation.
Staten Island features four outdoor pools and four mini-pools
Don't Miss: The dramatic setting of Faber Pool along Kill Van Kull as you frolic in the water seemingly right next to container ships from around the world (before the pool opened on July 15, 1932, children used to swim in the polluted waters of the Kill Van Kull itself) . . . Faber Pool is one of two pre-WPA outdoor pools and its Southern California-like bathhouse features 18 different hues of stone.