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…
     

     

    Crowds at Red Hook Pool, 1938

    New York City Parks Photo Archive

  • 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.
     

    Children wading in refuse in the East River, NYC,1935

    Photo: Balch Institute Collections, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; reprinted in Robert Anthony Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (New Haven, 1985)

  • 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 The few parks and playgrounds that existed were outdated and badly deteriorated.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.
     

    New York children escape the heat by using fire hydrant as a shower bath, Rogers Smith, 1943

    Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

  • A Solution

    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.

    Jefferson Pool, 1936

    New York City Parks Photo Archive

  • 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. 

    Jefferson Park under construction, Percy Sperr, 1936

    Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

  • 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.

    Jefferson Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1 July 1936

    New York City Parks Photo Archive
     

  • 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.

    Pool openings in the news—New York Times headlines from the summer of 1936

  • “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.”
     

    Men's locker room at Crotona Pool, rendering by C.M.F., 1935

    New York City Parks Photo Archive

  • 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.

     

    Sunset Park Pool, 1937

    New York City Parks Photo Archive

  • 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.

    Betsy Head Play Center. Entering shower room, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., 1939

    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • 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.

    16 mm Silent Film Collection, 1938-49

    New York City Parks Photo Archive

     

  • 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. 

    Red Hook Pool with Red Hook Houses behind it, Arthur Rothstein, 1942

    Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

  • 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.

    Betsy Head Play Center. Waiting for locker keys, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., 1939

    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • 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)

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    Learn to Swim Campaign poster. John Wagner, New York City W.P.A. Art Project, 1940

    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • 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.

    Hamilton Fish Pool, Daniel Avila, 2009

    NYC Parks & Recreation

  • For a Swim or for More Info

    Astoria Pool:
    19th Street and 23rd Drive, Queens
    Betsy Head Pool:
    Boyland, Livonia and Dumont Avenues, Brooklyn
    Crotona Pool:
    173rd Street and Fulton Avenue, The Bronx
    Hamilton Fish Pool:
    Pitt and Houston Streets, Manhattan
    Highbridge Pool:
    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
    McCarren Pool:
    Lorimer Street between Bayard Street and Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn
    Red Hook Pool:
    Bay and Henry Streets, Brooklyn
    Sunset Pool:
    Seventh Avenue between 41st and 44th Streets, Brooklyn

    http://www.nycgovparks.org/facilities/pools

  • 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.