Playing Through: Recreation and the New Deal
By Gray Brechin

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York
Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.
Photo Credit: Frank Da Cruz

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built Pelham Bay Golf Course clubhouse in the Bronx is a knockout, but not so unusual in the exceptional quality it offered to the public. David Owen, in a 2005 article on public golf courses in the New Yorker, described the clubhouse as looking “a little like Monticello without the dome,” although its circular foyer and expansive salon are more Art Deco Hollywood than Jeffersonian Palladian. When Living New Deal Director Dick Walker and I visited it in June with local resident and New Deal researcher Frank da Cruz, I mistook it for one of the private clubs in the tonier suburbs of New York City rather than the still working-class Bronx.

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017
The Club House serves the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

Pelham Bay and adjacent Split Rock Golf Courses share the clubhouse and both were, Owens writes, designed by noted golf architect John R. Van Kleck as two among many outstanding public courses commissioned by parks czar Robert Moses in four of the city’s five boroughs. Owen’s article also describes Brooklyn’s WPA-built Dyker Beach clubhouse as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house” but with a membership including “carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course,” by which he means a public golf course open to all.

Original concession stand. The concession stand as it appeared in 1940

Original concession stand
The concession stand as it appeared in 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York City Parks

By building ski lodges, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, archery ranges, swimming pools, innumerable baseball fields as well as golf courses, New Deal agencies like the WPA democratized sports previously available only to the wealthy while realizing what Franklin Roosevelt called for at a 1943 press conference: “We must plan for, and help to bring about, an expanded economy which will result in more security, in more employment, in more recreation.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also saw the need to plan for the greater leisure time that would result from automation once the Depression was over. In his recent book, City of Ambition, Mason Williams writes,  “The core of La Guardia’s “economic readjustment’ . . . was the reduction of working hours (and the retention of existing wage levels) to create what he called a “spread of employment” which in turn would “create an opportunity for education, for recreation, for travel, for enjoyment of life.” At the same time, recreational facilities would provide numerous jobs for those who staffed them. 

Club room Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif

Club Room
Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

FDR doubtless thought a lot about the benefits of physical activity since they were largely denied the once-athletic man after he contracted polio in 1921. But, like La Guardia, he also knew that Americans in the near future would have much more spare time, and that recreational and educational opportunities should be available to them to productively fill it.

The New Deal encouraged public health in its broadest dimension: the development of a full human being and a healthy society of citizens, not consumers. Though few remember who built them and why, public golf courses continue to deliver on that promise by building the community of which David Owens writes many decades after WPA workers traded their shovels for four irons.   

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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