New-York Historical Society

Taking the Plunge: Pools of New York City

It may come as a surprise that the so-called concrete jungle of New York City has no fewer than 54 outdoor pools maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Astoria Park Pool.  Geographic File, PR 020.

New Yorkers have been taking the plunge in the Big Apple since the late 1800s, when the state legislature passed a law mandating free bathhouses in cities with populations over 50,000. The state, along with then-Mayor William L. Strong, believed it was necessary to provide bathing facilities for families in overcrowded tenements, where sanitary issues were a major concern. Bath houses, the predecessor of the swimming pool, were initially used for cleansing and therapeutic purposes but became more geared towards recreation over the years.

Interior of Swimming Bath, Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1870.  Geographic File, PR 020.

Along with bath houses, New York City also boasted “floating baths,” along both the East and Hudson Rivers. These wooden baths were filled with river water and secured by pontoons, boasting dressing rooms for men and women. However, these scenic watering holes were short-lived because of the increased concern of river pollution and the limited number of seasons they could be in use.

 

Floating Bathhouse, Battery Swimming Baths (1939).  Geographic File, PR 020.

In the 1930s and 1940s, under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the Parks Department became the authority of bathhouses and in conjunction with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began a large scale project to create several grand bath houses and outdoor pool complexes. Each pool in the extensive project boasted cutting-edge techniques and were the epitome of architecture, design and cleanliness. The WPA pools functioned out of season as well, becoming venues for dancing, shuffleboard, ice skating and various other activities.  Another major pool project happened in the 1970s with the construction of “vest-pocket “ or mini pools and Olympic-sized pools in order to answer the increasing need of more recreational facilities. Today many of the City’s original pools are still in operation and most have received a substantial face lift. Most residents tend not to realize these free oases that are literally in their own backyard. This summer pool season began on June 29th and will remain open through Labor Day.

Before Pools: The Old Swimming Hole, Foot of 50th Street and East River (1907).  Geographic File, PR 020.

-Catherine Patterson

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