The City first mixed asphalt for its roads on this site in 1914. The modernist landmark that serves as this park’s namesake and centerpiece stands as the sole survivor of the former Municipal Asphalt Plant.
Ely Jacques Kahn and Robert A. Jacobs designed the plant and constructed it during World War II (1939-1945). Jacobs drew inspiration from the old airports outside Paris that he once passed while biking to work for French design innovator LeCorbusier in the mid 1930s. Reinforced concrete covers the parabola-shaped building’s 90-foot arches.
Debate over the “Cathedral of Asphalt” ensued when former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981) called the plant “the most hideous waterfront structure ever inflicted on a city by a combination of architectural conceit and official bad taste.” The Museum of Modern Art hailed the plant as a masterpiece of functional design. The plant’s prime location at 90th Street between York Avenue and F.D.R. Drive, allowed materials to reach the site by ship rather than by truck. Barges dredged up the sand and gravel from the East River for mixing into pavement at the asphalt plant until operations ceased in 1968. The City now mixes the substance at a plant in Queens.
In 1970, Parks acquired this land from the Department of Highways. In the early 1970s, neighborhood activists from the Stanley Isaacs Senior Center and locals George and Annette Murphy saved the site from conversion into two 45-story apartment buildings and a public school. George Murphy (1919-1987), a pathologist at Cornell University Medical College, founded Asphalt Green Incorporated to build a state of the art creative and physical health facility dedicated to providing affordable access to the community.
Asphalt Green Incorporated annexed the fire-boathouse at the 90th Street pier near Mill Rock Island in the hopes of developing a nautical and environmental education center. This plan never came to fruition, however, after several collisions and a fire damaged the pier beyond repair. In 1984, Asphalt Green dedicated the main plant as the four-level Murphy Center, housing art and photography studios, a gym with an elevated track, gymnastic equipment, and the 100 seat Mazur Theater. Robert Adzema’s 1984 sundial sculpture marks the entry. The 1993 Aquacenter, which houses the $20 million Olympic-size Delacorte pool, and professional gym for members, replaced old play equipment, handball courts, and a wading pool.
Although Asphalt Green provides many of its services for a fee, one third of its programs are free to the public. Providing school children with swimming lessons, and granting pool access for physical rehabilitation, community sports leagues, and summer camps, fulfills the Asphalt Green mission as stated in their bylaws; “to foster the skills and benefits that it brings to its users to help combat community deterioration, mitigate neighborhood tensions, and help eliminate prejudice and discrimination through its programs.”