Red Hook Recreation Area

Parks Celebrates 75 Years Of Summer Swimming In New York City's WPA-era Pools

Monday, August 8, 2011
No. 56

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe today joined Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Council Member Sara Gonzalez, Chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Robert B. Tierney, Historian and Licensed Architect Marta Gutman, and co-chairs of the NYC Swim Council Dr. Jane Katz and Ann Buttenwieser at Red Hook Pool in Brooklyn to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) pools and announce New York City’s first ever Swim Council.

“It’s Summertime… and the livin’ is easy thanks to the construction of the 11 WPA pools in 1936 and the 43 others that were built later on in NYC. The WPA era represented a concerted effort to provide New Yorkers with access to safe, clean, and majestic places to swim,” said Commissioner Benepe. “Today, Parks is continuing this tradition at our 54 outdoor pools, and we are thrilled to announce the formation of the NYC Swim Council, the next step in our efforts to ensure that New York’s children learn basic, water skills that could save their lives.”

“As someone who grew up in poverty and appreciated every recreational opportunity available to me and my family, I know how important it is for kids and their parents to have these pools during long, hot Brooklyn summers,” said Borough President Markowitz. “The best part of this 75th anniversary celebration -- I’m not coming to the party in my bathing suit!”

“The pool complexes are vivid reminders of the ambition and vision it took to improve the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers during an extremely difficult period for the City,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Robert B. Tierney. “Their designations as New York City landmarks would not have been possible without the support of Commissioner Benepe and the Parks Department, and our continued partnership will ensure that these great examples of civic architecture will endure for future generations.”

The 1930s-themed event included synchronized swimming performances by Dr. Jane Katz, member of the 1964 US Performance Synchronized Swimming Team, as well as the Harlem Honeys and Bears, a relay race by Parks Swim Teams representing each of the 11 WPA pools, and musical performances by Jazzmobile and the Sugar Hill Quartet and Vivian Jett. On display were a variety of vintage cars and large archival photos of the pools’ early days.

The anniversary event also launched the foundation of the NYC Swim Council. The Council, composed of a group of citizen leaders who care about swimming and children, will work as an advocate for drowning prevention: emphasizing raising funds, identifying resources, and coordinating services to teach water safety to every second grader in NYC public schools.

The summer of 1936, deep in the Great Depression, broke local heat records. The debut of 11 immense outdoor public pools scattered throughout the five boroughs could not have come at a more opportune moment. The 11 WPA pools are: Astoria Pool in Queens; Crotona Pool in the Bronx; Joseph H. Lyons Pool on Staten Island; Hamilton Fish, Jackie Robinson and Thomas Jefferson Pools in Manhattan; and Betsy Head, Highbridge, McCarren, Red Hook, and Sunset Pools in Brooklyn.

The 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 La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, himself an avid swimmer.

Massive in size, the pools combined could—and often did—accommodate more than 43,000 bathers. 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 of the pool complexes constructed that summer are designated New York City Landmarks.

Parks oversees 54 outdoor pools throughout the city, which open to the public from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Daily hours of operation are 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., seven days a week.

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Red Hook Recreation Area

We're reconstructing the running track and converting soccer fields 3-5 and ballfields 1-4 from natural turf to synthetic turf. Starting July 6, 2021, this site, including the track, will be closed to the public for the duration of construction (approximately through spring 2023). Please visit our Capital Project Tracker to learn more about this project.
Anticipated Completion: Spring 2023

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