Constance Baker Motley Recreation Center

Recreation Center 54

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

East 54th Street Recreation Center opened in 1911 as a public bathhouse with 79 showers for men and 59 for women. Built during an era of socially progressive initiatives, the center’s original purpose was to provide sanitary facilities for the city’s working classes.

A state legislative act in 1895 mandated the construction of free public baths in cities of populations of 50,000 or more. Bathhouses such as the one formerly at this site, were built in overcrowded working class tenement districts for the purposes of public hygiene and recreation. A majority of homes lacked indoor plumbing at that time, and public showers and baths were a civic response to what Mayor William Strong (1827-1900) called the needs of “the great unwashed.”

Originally known as the East 54th Street Public Baths and Gymnasium, plans for the center began in 1904 under the auspices of Manhattan Borough President John F. Ahearn (1853 –1920) and the Department of Public Works. Swimming pools debuted at this center in 1915 and the 54-by-17 foot pools were open for adults from September to May and for children during the summer.

The bathhouses were open from early in the morning until late into the evening and were free to the public, although bathers were required to supply their own soap and towels. Capable of serving up to 8,000 people a day, there were originally separate entrances for men and women, and for a time, the baths were used by men and women on alternate days. The center, as with other bathhouses built after 1904, offered amenities such as a gymnasium and swimming pool. A playground existed on the building’s roof in the center’s early years, accounting for the curved fence at the top of the building’s façade.

In 1915, NYC Parks was given jurisdiction over the gymnasium on the upper floor of the three-story building. By 1938, NYC Parks controlled the entire facility.

This building was designated as a New York City Landmark in 2011 since it has most of its structure and character, which include marble walls in the locker rooms from the original marble baths. Other classical architectural details consist of two wrought ironwork spiral staircases that connect the basketball court and jogging track, the Guastavino tile, vaulted ceiling in the gymnasium, and the lobby ceiling.

Today, East 54th Street Recreation Center hosts basketball tournaments, volleyball games, and classes in the fitness room, among other community programs. After a 2017 renovation, the pool was refurbished and there was an overhaul of the plumbing and electrical systems. The installation of ramps and an elevator on the east side of the building make the center accessible to all users. East 54th Street Recreation Center has evolved with the city, and doubtless will continue to serve city residents for many years to come.

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Recreation Centers
Constance Baker Motley Recreation Center

The indoor pool at this location will be closed until further notice due to emergency maintenance.

Indoor Pools
Constance Baker Motley Pool

The indoor pool at this location will be closed until further notice due to emergency maintenance.

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