In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of the Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
With its parallel octagonal towers rising above the beach, the sprawling Art Deco bathhouse complex at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways has, since opening in 1932, served as a monument to Art Deco design, grand public works, and popular beach-time fun. At GVSHP, we remember Jacob Riis’s significance as a documenter of our neighborhoods’ squalid living conditions and cemeteries, bringing needed attention and assistance to those who needed it most. Now, Beyond the Village and Back is heading to the beach, to explore this extraordinary beachfront building in the public park that bears Riis’s name.
Jacob Riis Park was once home to Naval Air Station Rockaway, one of the U.S. Navy’s original stations. The first transatlantic flight made by Albert Cushing Read ended here in 1919. The Air Station closed in 1930 when it moved inland to Floyd Bennett Field, and conversion and construction for the park began.
The park is named for Jacob Riis, the well-known Danish-born photojournalist and social reformer who documented the city’s poorest populations. His most famous works—the publications How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Children of the Poor (1892)—inspired then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to “close the worst of the lodging houses and spurred city officials to reform and enforce the city’s housing policies.” You can learn more about Jacob Riis and his work in the Village, especially in documenting tenement life and African-American communities, here. Riis was also an advocate for playgrounds and open spaces that were open and accessible to the public, as places for community and connection. Riis died in 1914, but his legacy lived on, and Jacob Riis Park is a destination to this day which lives up to his vision for public spaces that hold beauty and charm, free of charge.
The Art Deco Bathhouse was proposed in 1930 by Queens Parks Commissioner Albert C. Benninger, who was inspired by the bathhouse at Jones Beach State Park, completed in August 1929. The designs for Riis’s bathhouse were made by architect John L. Plock in November 1930. The project was approved by the mayor’s office in February 1931 and construction began that November. The bathhouse was opened on August 6, 1932.
In 1937, the New York Times described Riis Beach:
“Although Riis Park lies only six miles east of Coney Island, it is a million miles away from the so-called Coney Island tradition. Thundering spray, instead of rattling roller coasters, makes the chief music of the beach.”
The pavilion, made up of four distinct buildings around a courtyard, accommodated 8,000 beachgoers and contained a cafeteria on the ground floor and on the second floor, a restaurant that opened out to a terrace, and the solarium on the roof. The original bathhouse courtyard was used for dressing rooms with cabana-shaped lockers and showers. The changing rooms were constructed of asbestos-board, while the showers were tile with stone trim; the rooms also featured sweeping, curved tiled counters. The Art Deco details on the bathhouse include its octagonal towers with sculpted decorations and multi-colored brickwork in geometric designs, cubed glass window panes, stepped piers, metal casement windows, and a covered colonnade with Corinthian columns and floral details in the archways’ interiors. Even the exterior light fixtures, which remain to this day, are geometric in shape and embellished with metal bands. The restaurants, terrace, and solarium were later replaced by a ranger station, the park police station, and the first-aid station. An eastern portion of the beach pavilion is currently used to house lifeguards from the National Park Service.
After the bathhouse was completed, Robert Moses got involved in 1934, with a series of renovations that demolished the parts of the bathhouse that sat on the beach, replacing them with an incongruous facade with squat columns in heavy brick. It was designed by Aymar Embury II, who frequently collaborated with Moses on public projects. This was completed in 1937. Moses’s plan also included a 40-foot wide boardwalk and expansive parking lot.
Riis Beach Park was under the ownership of New York City until 1974, when it was transferred to the National Park Service amidst the city’s financial crisis. Jacob Riis Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. The use of asbestos in the changing rooms caused them to be closed in 1988. Although a $20 million restoration of the bathhouse was started in the 1990s, the renovation project was only partially completed. The bathhouse has received damage from numerous storms, including Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Though the boardwalk was repaired, no restoration efforts have been made to the bathhouse, which saw feet of sand and water inside and significant beach erosion in the wake of both hurricanes. The pavilion still needs major work, and many of the large doors protecting the interior of the building are boarded up. The courtyard is a storage ground for lifeguard chairs and equipment.
More recently, Riis Park’s popularity is only increasing, thanks in part to the Beach Bazaar, which has taken up residence in portions of the existing historic buildings. The boardwalk, too, is now lined with bikes and umbrellas for rent, as well as food and drink vendors. In the words of the LGBT Historic Sites Project, “the isolated eastern end of the beach at Jacob Riis Park has been a location for LGBTQ sunbathing and cruising since the 1940s.” The beach is a great day trip for anyone who wants to feel as though they’re farther away than they really are from the city’s bustle and humidity – children and families, surfers, dates, and friends alike – all of whom might remember the contributions that Jacob Riis made to raising social consciousness, public health standards, and preservation in the Village and beyond.
Getting from the Village to Riis Park is pretty easy – take the 2 or 5 trains to the last stop at Flatbush Avenue, and hop on the Q35 bus across the street, which will drop you off right in front of this beautiful bathhouse. You can also take the A train to Beach 60 St Station and walk across to the Q22 bus, which is also a quick ride to the east end beach. See you there!