A New Deal Jewel in New York Awaits Revival

Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.

Orchard Beach and Pavilion, Bronx, New York
Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.  Source

A record 1.7 million people flocked to Orchard Beach in the Bronx this past summer. That would have pleased former New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the visionary force behind its construction. With its man-made crescent shoreline, Orchard Beach is an engineering feat and was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal. The City’s Landmark Preservation Commission goes even further, citing it as “among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936

Opening Day, Orchard Beach
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Upon completion in 1929 of the widely celebrated six-mile-long Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island, Moses sought a comparable triumph within city limits. With Long Island Sound bordering Pelham Bay Park, he devised a plan to fill a bay between the two land masses to create a new beach over a mile long. His plan went into action in 1935. A section of the beach opened in 1936, with Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia presiding; it was completed in 1937.

The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Orchard Beach Pavilion in 1937
The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Grand achievements and remarkable efficiency were hallmarks of the Moses regime, but neither would have been possible without the shared Progressive vision of Mayor LaGuardia, and the Mayor’s able maneuvering in Washington to secure New Deal funding.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a New Yorker himself, was no fan of Robert Moses and even urged his firing. But FDR was charmed by LaGuardia, and noted that he found it hard to resist the feisty Mayor’s requests. New Deal accomplishments in New York in 1936 alone included not only Orchard Beach, but also Pelham Bay-Split Rock Golf Course, eleven massive municipal swimming pools, and the Triborough Bridge—all with Moses at the helm.

While Orchard Beach is enormously popular today, its dramatic centerpiece, a massive bathhouse pavilion, is fenced off and deteriorating. The design of this monumental structure, a New York City landmark, is credited to architect Aymar Embury II. Its striking style—classicism cloaked in austere modernism—echoes that found in civic buildings across the country from the period. Yet the building’s blue terra-cotta details, some with Art Deco elements, give it a distinct individuality. Even in its current disrepair, the pavilion conveys a noble grandeur, evoking a sense of stability that must have been reassuring during the Great Depression.

The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.

Orchard Beach Pavilion today.
The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.
Photo Credit: Deborah Wye

The New York City Parks Department is in the midst of a multi-year study to determine the structural soundness of the building and its possible future uses. Although there is no official report yet, analysis of the concrete has shown it to be stable enough for restoration. As a city property, the pavilion will probably languish through years of building regulations and shifting funding appropriations. But, hopefully, the former bathhouse, once providing changing rooms, restaurants, and shops, will one day be a fully-equipped recreation center with programs as popular year-round as Orchard Beach is every summer.

Deborah Wye retired as Chief Curator of Prints at The Museum of Modern Art in 2010. She owns a house in City Island, near Orchard Beach, and is a member of the Friends of Pelham Bay Park. She curated the exhibition, “A Landmark Pavilion at Orchard Beach” at the City Island Nautical Museum and gave a series of lectures on the pavilion at venues in Manhattan and the Bronx.

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