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Can East River Park’s Historic Buildings Be Saved?

John V. Lindsay East River Park is a 57+ acre park that stretches along the East River waterfront from Montgomery Street north to East 12th Street. With the pending closure and rebuilding of the park, several historic structures in the park face likely demolition.

East River Park, Ca. 1940

Two extant Art Deco gems were constructed in 1938 in advance of the East River Park’s opening on July 27, 1939. Both the Track House and the Tennis Center Comfort Station have been recognized by the New York State Historic Preservation Office for their architectural and historic significance. Yet they remain threatened.

These buildings are designed in a style sometimes called “WPA Moderne” in reference to the Works Project Administration that funded much of the era’s public works.

Image via Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.

They were both designed by architect Aymar Embury II. Embury is best known for his work in on NYC bridges, zoos, swimming pools, playgrounds,and other Depression-era structures commissioned from the 1930s through to the 1950s. Embury was already a distinguished architect by the time he began working in NYC. He regularly worked with Robert Moses during this period, especially during the 1930s when Moses was NYC Parks Commissioner.

Surviving examples of Embury’s work in NYC include the Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Bryant Park, Jacob Riis Park, McCarren Park, Red Hook Park, Sunset Park, the Triborough Bridge, Henry Hudson Bridge, Orchard Beach, and the New York City Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair (now the Queens Museum).

Brian Watkins Tennis Center Comfort Station. Image via Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.

Supported by eight local preservation groups, including Village Preservation, the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (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.

Decorated with charming terra cotta river motif details that refer back to the maritime and shipbuilding history of this waterfront area and metal ornamentation, these buildings evoke the early phases of East River Park’s history, and demonstrate the high level of craftsmanship employed in creating even the most utilitarian WPA era structures.

Trach House in 1939, Photo: NYC Parks

But State and National Register eligibility does not prevent demolition. With very few examples of Art Deco architecture on the Lower East Side, preservationists believe it is particularly important that they be saved.

Comfort Station in 1939, Photo: NYC Parks

The comfort station and tennis courts were renamed the Brian Watkins Tennis Center after a Utah tourist was murdered in the subway while attending the U.S. Open in 1990. This high profile murder a year and a half after the Central Park jogger case led to Mayor Dinkins hiring 6,000 new police officers, helping to trigger a downward trend in crime that subsequent mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have largely been credited for. 

A proposal by Davies Toews Architects supported by Community Board 3, would involve lifting the buildings on stilts and restoring them for new generations of park-goers.

Proposed Track House restoration, Photo: Davies Toews Architects
Proposed Tennis center restoration, Photo: Davies Toews Architects

It is yet to be seen whether this proposal will be funded.

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