New Deal Park Structures Face Demolition in NYC

East River Park, 1938. Tennis Center Comfort Station in foreground; Track House in far background. Photo: NYC Parks Photo Archive

East River Park, a ribbon of greenspace that runs along Manhattan’s Lower East Side waterfront, was part of a visionary plan of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who together oversaw a massive wave of New Deal construction in New York. The 1.5-mile-long park was integral to plans for East River Drive (now the FDR Drive), one of Manhattan’s primary north-south arteries, which received federal funding in 1935.

Moses insisted that construction include a waterfront park, even though extensive landfill would be required on the highway’s eastern border. Such a recreational amenity would be a healthful benefit for the crowded Lower East Side immigrant community. This transformative plan also included public housing on the highway’s western border. The first such apartment complex, the Vladeck Houses, opened in 1940, a year after East River Park.

Track House. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

The importance of East River Park—as the Lower East Side’s largest open space—is demonstrated by the team assembled for its construction. Gilmore D. Clarke, the leading landscape architect for New York City’s New Deal projects, designed the grounds, while Aymar Embury II, lead architect, was responsible for the buildings. These include the very distinctive Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station, now threatened with demolition. Embury is the architect responsible for many New Deal landmarks, including the Triborough Bridge, the Orchard Beach Bathhouse in the Bronx, and Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. Yet, even for modest, utilitarian structures such as these in East River Park, Embury gave uncommon attention to materials, massing, and design motifs specific to the site.

The Track House and Tennis Center Comfort Station are the only two surviving buildings of five such structures once populating East River Park. They will be razed, along with the entire park, as part of the East Coastal Resiliency Plan, meant to fortify this vulnerable area against flooding.  The ground level will be raised up 8 – 10 feet and a new park will be built on top.

Tennis Center Comfort Station. East River Park, Manhattan. Photo: LESPI

A grassroots organization, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (LESPI), is rallying to save the Park’s Track House and Tennis Comfort Station. Supported by eight local preservation groups, LESPI applied to the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to qualify the two structures for the National and State Registers of Historic Places. SHPO granted the buildings a Determination of Eligibility, citing them as “outstanding examples of Art Deco and WPA Moderne design,” and noting the “high degree of integrity” they retained, both inside and out.  SHPO described the unusual architectural features of the buildings, which include design references to the waterfront and maritime heritage of the Lower East Side. While such eligibility does not ensure that these buildings will be saved, it requires that serious consideration be given to possibilities for mitigation, such as raising them for adaptive re-use.

Demolition is scheduled to begin this fall. Send any letters of support for preserving these distinctive New Deal buildings to [email protected].

Deborah Wye was a long-time curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Upon retirement, she turned her attention to New York City history and architecture. She is a Board member of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.