New Exhibition Featuring Parks WPA-Era Pools Makes A Splash
The summer of 1936, deep in the Great Depression, broke local heat records. The debut of 11 immense outdoor public pools scattered throughout New York City could not have come at a more opportune moment. The heroically-scaled pools project was financed by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), as part of a massive effort to alleviate adverse health conditions and provide safe recreation in predominantly working-class communities. The project was implemented by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and his energetic and influential Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, himself an avid swimmer. The pools were a major component of the broader initiative Moses had launched two years earlier to expand and improve the New York City parks system using work relief funds.
To honor these remarkable recreational facilities, still vital community centers decades after their construction, Parks & Recreation has mounted --just in time for another heat wave--the exhibition SPLASH! A 70th Anniversary Celebration of New York City’s WPA Pools, on view at Central Park’s Arsenal Gallery through September 7. The show features 77 photographs (mostly vintage) and historic renderings that represent the 11 outdoor public pools opened in New York City during the summer of 1936. Also included in the show are never-before-shown historic color films of the pools, as well as two bronze eagles that once adorned McCarren Pool.
Most of the 11 pools were built within existing parks in congested tenement districts. Even during afternoon hours, weekends, and holidays, when all patrons were charged a fee, grateful bathers lined up by the thousands (the admission charge was later dropped). Combined, these new pools could--and often did--accommodate more than 43,000 bathers at once, the population of a small city.
The pools were not just huge. They were 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 swum. The palette of building materials was mainly inexpensive brick, concrete and cast stone, but the styles ranged from Romanesque Revival to Art Deco.
Today, all but one of the 11 pools (McCarren) remain in active use. For those who cannot afford a trip to the beach or a private health club, the pools are a summer lifeline. Their ongoing viability in an ever-changing city reminds us that even in times of financial hardship, the public sector can think big and build institutions of enduring value.
The images in the Arsenal Gallery exhibition have been chosen as much for visual interest as for their documentary significance. A shot of Red Hook Pool’s construction reveals a stark industrial landscape around it. Photos of gala dedications at Hamilton Fish and Thomas Jefferson highlight the large crowds of impoverished residents who thronged the openings and were to benefit from the new pools. The graceful designs produced by architectural teams demonstrate a deep respect for a public often living in squalid housing. Shots of a boys comedy-troupe, known as the Aquazanies, at Astoria Pool, Learn to Swim instruction, swim meet trophy winners, modern-day courtship rituals at Sunset Park, and a contemporary dance performance at McCarren Pool, are among the images that capture the beauty and diversity of the pool activities.
Most of the photographs were taken by staff photographers and are courtesy of the New York City Parks Photo Archive. Additional contemporary images are loaned by Thomas Roma and Tim Knox. Historic renderings are loaned from Parks’ Map File Collections.
The exhibition is curated by Parks’ Director of Art & Antiquities Jonathan Kuhn, with assistance from Sheena Brown, Scott Sendrow and Clare Weiss. The accompanying brochure and exhibit invitation were designed by Dana Wilner. Special thanks to Daniel Avila for printing the photographs.
The Arsenal Gallery is located on the 3rd Floor of the Arsenal at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in Central Park. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closed holidays). Admission is free.
Written by Jonathan Kuhn
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
"[Joseph H. Lyons Pool is] a monument to the progressive government which would not and could not see unemployed men on the breadline."
(1882 – 1947)