NYC's Greatest Pools
Landmarks of Leisure
In the hot summer of 1936, the city of New York opened 11 new majestic swimming pools in nine weeks. Though the city was in the midst of the Great Depression, New York expanded its services to residents of modest means rather than cutting back. In tough times, municipal leaders were determined to create jobs and modernize the city, as well as provide new spaces for public enjoyment. The pools became one of New York’s best loved institutions and are still one of the joys of summer in the city today. Here’s how the pools came to be…
No Safe Place to Swim
In New York’s hot summer months, before the days of air conditioning, many children escaped the heat by swimming in the river—jumping off the piers or using enclosed swimming areas known as “floating baths.” Swimming in the river was legal but it was also dangerous. Drownings occurred regularly, and kids contracted diseases like polio and typhoid that were transmitted by the raw sewage that was dumped directly into the rivers.
No Safe Place to Play
By the 1930s, many forms of child labor had been abolished, and the unemployment of the Depression years eliminated those jobs that children of poor and working class families still held. So children spent more time in school and at play than they had in earlier times. But in New York’s congested, tenement neighborhoods, there was no safe place to play. The few parks and playgrounds that existed were outdated and badly deteriorated. As a result, many children played in the streets, and in and around the rivers. Social reformers blamed high disease, illiteracy, and delinquency rates on the shortage of public recreation spaces, and worked to change the situation.
In 1934, Robert Moses, appointed Parks Commissioner by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, proposed building large swimming pools throughout each of the city’s five boroughs. In one fell swoop, the pools could address economic, social, and hygiene problems, and provide delightful entertainment to kids and families on hot summer days.
Paying for Pools
To counter the effects of the economic depression, the federal government began investing in public works like bridges and dams to modernize the landscape and create jobs. New York City received federal funding to construct eleven pools, each of which cost nearly a million dollars. The project also received funding from the Work Progress Administration, one of the many emergency public employment programs created during this time.
The pool projects created thousands of jobs for unemployed New Yorkers who worked in construction, provided entertainment for the inauguration ceremonies, and staffed the complexes throughout the year.
Planning the Pools
The sites for the pools were carefully chosen. To capitalize on existing resources and limit the costs and delays of acquiring new land, pools were built whenever possible in already-existing parks. Pools were also located in neighborhoods which would benefit the most from new public recreation space. In dense areas filled with crowded tenements, the pools could bring children off the streets. Jefferson Park in East Harlem was one such place. Pools were also sited for maximum dramatic effect, overlooking Sunset Park and the Manhattan skyline, for instance, or framed by Highbridge Tower.
Eleven Pools in Nine Weeks
Construction of the pools started in 1934, and in the summer of 1936, eleven pool complexes in all five boroughs opened within weeks of one another. All of the openings were grand spectacles, promoted in the newspapers. Many of the inauguration ceremonies included parades and speeches, and some included swimming races and diving competitions with well-known athletes. Record-breaking temperatures that year only added to the public’s enthusiasm. More than 1.79 million people used the pools during the summer they opened.
“Sound Vernacular Modern Architecture”
The pools were hailed by a prominent architecture critic as “sound vernacular modern architecture.” Despite limited time and funds, the architects and landscape architects in the Division of Design at the Department of Parks managed to bring luxury and modernity to the swimming pools. They did it by using inexpensive materials and designing for easy assembly. Standardization—using the same components and construction details for all of the pools—was the key to creating these high quality public buildings. The design team strictly adhered to a philosophy of “simple materials simply disposed.”
Palaces for Regular People
In this manner, New York’s “vernacular,” or everyday, architecture delivered luxury, monumentality, and spectacle to average New Yorkers. Beyond the dramatic scale of each complex, every pool was different, combining a modern structure with classical or medieval decorative elements.
Pools and Public Health
Given the unsanitary swimming conditions then prevalent in the city—and the threat of diseases like polio in the days before vaccines—hygiene was a priority. Each pool was filled with clean city water—as opposed to river water. A mass of filters, pipes and other underground equipment heated and purified the water, and kept it circulating. On their way out of the locker rooms, swimmers had to pass through a footbath filled with disinfectant to make sure they were clean.
Making the Most of the Pools
The pools were sites for courtship, spectacle, and display, but they were also designed for exercise and education. The pools offered swimming lessons as well as races, diving competitions, and water ballets. The grand size of the pools and their surrounding complexes accommodated many users and uses. There were shade trees for adults, wading pools for small children, and playgrounds and athletic fields for older kids.
With the pools and bathhouses designed to serve off-season as basketball gymnasiums and volleyball or handball courts, and with baseball and football fields in the surrounding parks, the complexes served New Yorkers all year round. Moreover, decades before Title IX—the 1972 law that mandated gender equality in public sports programs—the city's Parks Department welcomed girls to play team sports in these parks.
Modernizing the City
The pools were part of bigger plans to modernize the city. New roads and bridges would speed traffic through and around town. New public housing was built to replace crowded and run-down tenements with modern and more hygienic apartments. The Red Hook Pool was a luxurious amenity for the eight thousand or so people who moved out of substandard housing into the modern, new Red Hook Houses.
Swimming in a Landscape of Racism
Segregated public swimming pools played a prominent role in racial politics in the United States, and New York’s pools were not an exception. Neighborhood tensions did not disappear in the water, and the pools were the site of exclusion and violent confrontations. But from the start, pools were located to serve African-American neighborhoods and white ones, and in neighborhoods where racial integration was accepted, the pools followed suit.
More on Pools and Race
The reputation of the pools has been tainted by tales of racism in their construction as well as their use. For many years rumors circulated that the pools had been explicitly designed to keep out New Yorkers of color. In this podcast, architectural historian Marta Gutman goes deeper into this complicated history.
Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City, is based on a 2008 lecture at the Columbia University Seminar on the City by Professor Marta Gutman, The City College of the City University of New York.
Race, Place, and Play (12:30 min)AUDIO (Download)
An Enduring Amenity
The WPA pools emerged from a combination of urban reform efforts, massive government funding, and modern design that characterized public projects in the U.S. in the 1930s. New York City never again embarked on such an ambitious program of construction for recreation. In the late 1960s a new “recreation crisis” led to the construction of many smaller pools, as well as two Olympic-sized ones. More recently, a Floating Pool has brought back the days of the barge pool to the Bronx (but with clean water!).
The WPA pools have had their share of hard times, along with the city, but the pools have endured. Ten pools—all recently renovated—continue to serve more than 950,000 visitors in the hot summer months. And even McCarren Pool, closed to swimming since the 1980s, is slated to reopen in 2012.
For a Swim or for More Info
19th Street and 23rd Drive, Queens
Betsy Head Pool:
Boyland, Livonia and Dumont Avenues, Brooklyn
173rd Street and Fulton Avenue, The Bronx
Hamilton Fish Pool:
Pitt and Houston Streets, Manhattan
Amsterdam Avenue and West 173rd Street, Manhattan
Jackie Robinson Pool:
Bradhurst Avenue and West 146th Street, Manhattan
Joseph H. Lyons Pool:
Pier 6 and Victory Boulevard, Staten Island
Lorimer Street between Bayard Street and Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn
Red Hook Pool:
Bay and Henry Streets, Brooklyn
Seventh Avenue between 41st and 44th Streets, Brooklyn
Sources and Credits
Read more about the pools:
Gutman, Marta. "Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67, no. 4 (December 2008): 532-61.
"Parks' Swimming Pools: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation." New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. 26 May 2009. http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/pools.html
Ballon, Hilary, and Jackson Kenneth T. Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
NYC's Greatest Pools was researched and written by Mariana Mogilevich in consultation with Professor Marta Gutman, City College of New York.
Thank you to research assistants Michelle Peña, Christine Renko and Aviva Stampfer, and to Christina Benson, Photo Archivist, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Marta Gutman would also like to thank Hillary Ballon and Ken Jackson for inviting her to participate in the Robert Moses and the Modern City exhibition, which made possible all of this research.
This virtual exhibit was made possible by the Vernacular Architecture Forum and E.H.A Foundation.
The podcast was produced with assistance from a Research Foundation of CUNY, PSC-CUNY 39 Research Grant.