Recreation Center 54
East 54th Street Recreation Center
The East 54th Street Recreation Center opened on Feb. 17, 1911, 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. Although the four-story, neo-classical building is not a designated landmark, much of its original character and history remains. The basketball court and jogging track are connected by two wrought ironwork spiral staircases, and the Guastavino tile, vaulted ceiling in the gymnasium, and the lobby ceiling are indicative of the architecture of the time. Marble walls in the locker rooms hearken back to the original marble baths.
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 and the Department of Public Works.
A Public Recreation Commission was created in 1911 to oversee the operation of the new baths, and by 1912, the City had built 12 interior bathhouses and an additional 11 “Free Floating Baths.” Berthed at the City’s wharves, these floating wooden structures enclosed a swimming pool lined with pine slats that allowed river water to circulate while protecting the safety of the swimmers. 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 for the duration of 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.
IIn 1915, the Public Recreation Commission was disbanded and Parks was given jurisdiction over the gymnasium on the upper floor of the three-story building. By 1938, Parks controlled the entire facility.
Today, East 54th Street Recreation Center hosts basketball tournaments, volleyball games, classes in the fitness room, and dances for teens, among other community programs. A recent $3 million renovation funded by Council Member Gifford Miller included a $1 million refurbishment of the pool, an overhaul of the plumbing and electrical systems, and a renovation of the lobby including the installation of a picture window looking into the pool area. 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.