Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue) between Livonia and Dumont Avenues, Brownsville, Brooklyn, brand new York City, brand new York, United States
The Betsy Head Play Center is one of a group of eleven immense outdoor swimming pools opened in the summer of 1936 in a series of grand ceremonies presided over by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Park Commissioner Robert Moses. All of the pools were constructed largely with funding provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of many brand new Deal agencies created in the 1930s to address the Great Depression.
Designed to accommodate a total of 49,000 users simultaneously at locations scattered throughout brand new York City’s five boroughs, the brand new pool complexes quickly gained recognition as being among the most remarkable public facilities constructed in the country. The pools were completed just two and a half years after the LaGuardia administration took office, and all but one survives relatively intact today.
While each of the 1936 swimming pool complexes is especially notable for its distinctive and unique design, the eleven facilities shared many of the same basic components. The complexes generally employed low-cost building materials, principally brick and cast concrete, and often utilized the streamlined and curvilinear forms of the popular 1930s Art Moderne style. Each had separate swimming, diving and wading pools, and a large bath house with locker room sections which doubled as gymnasiums in non-swimming months. Concrete bleachers at the perimeter of each pool complex and rooftop promenades and galleries furnished ample spectator viewing areas. The complexes were also distinguished by innovative mechanical systems required for heating, filtration and water circulation. Sited in existing older parks or built on other city-owned land, the grounds surrounding the pool complexes were executed on a similarly grand scale, and included additional recreation areas, connecting pathway systems, and comfort station.
The team of designers, landscape architects and engineers assembled to execute the brand new pool complexes, in addition to hundreds of other construction and rehabilitation projects undertaken between 1934 and 1936 by brand new York’s newly consolidated Parks Department, was comprised largely of staff members and consultants who had earlier worked for Moses at other governmental agencies, including architect Aymar Embury II, landscape architects Gilmore D. Clarke and Allyn R. Jennings, and civil engineers W. Earle Andrews and William H. Latham. Surviving documents also indicate that Moses, himself a long-time swimming enthusiast, gave detailed attention to the designs for the brand new pool complexes.
Established in 1914, Betsy Head Park in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn was the city’s first recreation facility designed to include a public outdoor swimming pool and bath house. The pool, later described by Moses as “an antiquated tank with no provision for cleaning or sterilizing the water,” was replaced in 1936 by the much larger existing swimming and diving pools. The 1914 bath house, a substantial twin-gabled building, was originally retained, but, following a fire in 1937, was replaced by the present bath house exceptionally designed by John Matthews Hatton and completed in 1939. More so than the other WPA pools, which were constructed at earlier dates, the Betsy Head bath house’s sleek geometric forms stripped of most ornament has been recognized as “perhaps the most inventive and most overtly Modernist structure of this type.” Moses himself considered this pool structure to be one of the most successful in terms of design, plan, and use of materials.
Like Hatton’s earlier design for the Astoria Play Center, the bath house is distinguished by the extensive use of recessed glass-block walls for the locker room portions of the bath house, making the structure translucent in these sections to a surprising degree. Equally striking is the rooftop observation gallery with its parabolic arches which support a broad, flat roof. Noted architect Ely Jacques Kahn, writing in Architectural Record, praised the rooftop structure and its underlying stepped stadium for “[recapturing] most of the park area occupied by the building,” and the bath house’s “multiplicity of uses” designed for “enjoyable use” year round. The main entrance is distinguished by its relatively lavish materials – polished black marble wall facings, curved corner sections of glass block, and slate paving. Cleverly designed and engineered, the brick pier in the lobby extends through the ceiling to the roof where it is clad in glass block and once functioned as a light source for evening activities; vents also serving as light shafts at roof level were once located above the men’s and women’s shower rooms.
DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS
History of the Betsy Head Play Center Site
Located in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the Betsy Head Play Center is set within the 10.555 acres of Betsy Head Park, which is bounded by Dumont Avenue to the north, Livonia Avenue to the south, Strauss Street to the west and Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue) to the east. The play center is located in the eastern section of the park along Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue).
The neighborhood of Brownsville, which at one time was a farming village, is named for Charles S. Brown who purchased land in the area beginning in 1865. brand new York City real-estate developer Aaron Kaplan’s decision to build tenements there in 1887, as well as the construction of the Fulton Street elevated railway in 1889 and the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, resulted in the transformation of Brownsville from a rural German area to an urban community of mostly Eastern European Jews employed in the garment and building trades. Having left their tenement apartments in the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, these Jews sought to recreate in Brownsville the shtetls, or smaller villages, of their European homelands. In 1925, the Jewish population in Brownsville and neighboring East brand new York amounted to the largest concentration of that ethnic group in brand new York City. Russian, Polish and Italian immigrants also settled in Brownsville at the turn of the century.
Beginning in the 1920s, affordable housing attracted a smaller number of African Americans, and their presence in the neighborhood increased in the following decades, particularly after the Second World War.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, Brownsville had become a densely-populated neighborhood. The Hebrew Educational Society (HES), founded in 1899 by established Jews to help assimilate Jewish immigrants, was one of the leading advocates for the creation of public parkland for the neighborhood. Brownsville property owners were eventually responsible for the $250,000 purchase of the land that would become Betsy Head Park, a recreational space set on two lots diagonally across from each other. Opened in 1914, the land was then transferred from the Public Recreation Commission to the Department of Parks. The playground there was planned as the “most elaborate in [the] city,” and the cost of construction for the buildings and equipment was covered entirely with money left by the late Betsy Head of Long Island, a widow who donated half of her estate to the City of brand new York “[to] be used to purchase and improve playgrounds for children, such as recreation places, public baths, &c.”
Designed by Henry B. Herts, the larger lot (the site of the future Betsy Head Play Center) was the city’s first recreation facility planned to include a public outdoor swimming pool (150 by 50 feet) and a substantial twin-gabled bath house; a field house, gymnasia and a baseball field were also located here. (Until the WPA pools of the 1930s were built, the Parks Department only had two pools in operation in the city: the Brownsville pool and one in Faber Park on Staten Island.) The smaller lot, intended for young children, offered a wading pool, play fields, and a farm school with 500 plots to grow crops. A type of the playground was featured at the Panama-Pacific Fair of 1915 in San Francisco, and it won first prize at the brand new York City Parks exhibit of that same year.
Under the auspices of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Park Commissioner Robert Moses, major improvements to Betsy Head Park were made in the 1930s. Though the Brownsville park, unlike the other WPA pool sites, already had a bath house and swimming pool in place, Moses was never satisfied with the complex, and a modernized Olympic-size swimming pool was constructed from 1934 to 1935. A 1937 fire that damaged the interior of the older bath house led the Parks Department to erect a temporary building for the 1938 swimming season while the current facility, opened in 1939, was under construction. Other additions planned for the pool complex were a diving pool (which opened after the brand new pool), bleachers and a filter house. Funding for the various improvements was largely made possible by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the many public works programs created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States Congress during the Great Depression.
The Design and Construction of the Betsy Head Pool
The Betsy Head Play Center is one of a group of eleven immense outdoor swimming pools opened in the summer of 1936 in a series of grand ceremonies presided over by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Park Commissioner Robert Moses. All of the pools were constructed largely with funding provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of many brand new Deal agencies created in the 1930s to address the Great Depression. Designed to accommodate a total of 49,000 users simultaneously at locations scattered throughout brand new York City’s five boroughs, the brand new pool complexes quickly gained recognition as being among the most remarkable public facilities ever constructed in the country. The city’s pool construction program was reported to have been the most expensive in terms of total cost.
Robert Moses, an avid swimmer who had a home near the ocean in Babylon, Long Island, was known to have taken a special interest in the design and construction of bathing and swimming facilities, such as Jones Beach, Orchard Beach and Riis Park, as well as the neighborhood swimming pools. As a result of his special attention, along with that of Aymar Embury II and Gilmore D. Clarke, the design and execution of brand new York City’s aquatic facilities in the 1930s were a cut above most other park projects at the time.
At the start, the Parks Department adopted a list of shared guidelines for the entire pool project in order to enhance the efficiency of the design effort, to unify the operations of each complex, and to meet the various local and federal requirements of the relief programs. For example, each pool complex was to have separate swimming, diving and wading pools, and a large bath house, the locker room sections of which doubled as gymnasiums during non-swimming months. The bath houses, which would serve as the centerpieces of each complex, would be distinctive pavilions that would establish the design motif of each facility. Concrete bleachers at the perimeter of the pools would furnish spectator viewing areas to be augmented at some sites with rooftop promenades and galleries. There would be a minimum width for the decks to provide enough room for sunbathing and circulation, and at least one dimension of each swimming pool would have to be a multiple of fifty-five yards to allow swimming competitions to be held at standard distances in either English or metric systems.
There had to be underwater lighting for night swimming, and heating for the pools. Plus, the complexes had to share low-cost building materials, principally brick and cast concrete, as required by the federal government as per the terms of the WPA funding.
To satisfy federal stipulation on low-cost materials, it appears that the design team for the pools determined that the streamlined and curvilinear forms of the Art Moderne and Modern Classical styles would best meet the low-cost needs and still permit pleasing aesthetics. As a group, the pools were also distinguished by the innovative mechanical systems required to heat, filter, and circulate the vast amounts of water they used. Many of these innovations set brand new standards for swimming pool construction, such as scum gutters that allowed in enough sunlight to naturally kill off bacteria and a series of footbaths filled with foot cleaning solution through which bathers were forced to pass upon entering the pool areas from the locker rooms.
Sited in existing older parks or built on other city-owned land subsequently developed as parks and playgrounds, the huge pool complexes were provided with landscape settings that included additional recreational areas, connecting pathway systems, and comfort stations. Despite the fact that the basic components were essentially the same and that the WPA required that only the cheapest materials be used, each of these swimming pool complexes is especially notable for its distinctive and unique setting, appearance, and character.
In October 1934, the Parks Department announced the start of excavations and site work for several of the brand new pools. Though the Brownsville site already had a swimming pool and bath house, Robert Moses was never satisfied with the complex, which he called “inadequate and unsanitary,” and the pool was modernized and enlarged to 330 feet by 165 feet. Moses believed the 1914 bath house was “unsatisfactory,” but the building remained with only minor alterations in order to accommodate the larger pool; baskets replaced lockers in the changing rooms and the interior was altered to provide space for 4,660 bathers. The year 1936 was known as “the swimming pool year,” since ten of the eleven pools were opened that summer, one per week for ten weeks. Each opening day was a memorable event for its neighborhood; with the exception of the Betsy Head Play Center, the day-long events featured parades, blessings of the waters, swimming races, diving competitions, appearances by Olympic stars, and performances by swimming clowns.
Mayor LaGuardia attended every opening to perform the ribbon cutting. Festivities continued well after dusk with LaGuardia pulling the switch to turn on each pool’s spectacular underwater lighting to the “oooohs” of the crowds.
In stark contrast to these events, the opening of the Betsy Head Play Center on August 7, 1936 occurred without the presence of the mayor or Department of Parks officials. That day, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported:
With shouts of glee some 450 youngsters today dedicated the brand new 1,400,000 gallon swimming pool at Betsy Head Park, Hopkinson and Dumont Aves., in their own fashion. There were no formal opening ceremonies, since the diving pool and a wading pool will not be completed until next year. The Park Department decided, however, not to deprive children the use of the completed larger pool any longer. Although there was no advance notice of the opening, word spread like wildfire along the younger set grapevine and in less than half an hour children were pouring into the park.
The decision to not have a formal pool opening appears to be a last-minute one. According to a Department of Parks press release dated August 5th, Moses and Philip Klowensky, President of the Pitkin Avenue Merchants’ Association, were to speak at a formal ceremony on August 6th that was to include a flag-raising event and an aquatic exhibition. (Architectural Historian Marta Gutman suggests another reason as to why officials were absent that day: they might have been cautious of visiting Brownsville, a neighborhood at the time known for its radical politics where a public official at a rally the summer before was heckled and a fight broke out.) In response to the lack of ceremony, Captain Bernard Rorke of the local police precinct, at the pool on August 7th, commented that, “Commissioners, Aldermen and such folk aren’t expected to use the pool, and they’ll not be missed this morning. It’s wonderful to have an opening be just that and nothing more.”
Eager children of Brownsville, East brand new York and other surrounding neighborhoods raced out of the locker rooms and into the brand new pool, “sampling [it] to their heart’s content.” At the time of the opening, a diving pool measuring 100 by 50 feet, a brand new playground, a track, and soccer field were still under construction. Intended to be used throughout the year, plans to convert the main pool for winter use were also made in September 1936: the pool was drained, temporary stairs were installed, benches were placed along the inside perimeter, and handball, paddle tennis, basketball, volleyball and shuffle board courts were added.
On August 17, 1937, a fire destroyed the interior of the bath house and shortened the swimming season at Betsy Head that summer. In a letter written to Mayor LaGuardia three days later, Robert Moses stated that the building should be replaced with a “modern play center” rather than be repaired. Though he strongly urged that the brand new bath house be completed for the 1938 season, a temporary one-story shower building was erected and used instead. Finally, on May 27, 1939, the one-story bath house that right now occupies the site was completed, fulfilling Moses’ vision for the Brownsville pool complex. Together with the remaining WPA-era pools, the Betsy Head Play Center is one of the major achievements of the brand new Deal in brand new York City.
The Designers Behind the Planning of Betsy Head Pool
The eleven WPA-era pool facilities shared many common features and specifications that could be repeated at each site, and contained other elements that were similar from complex to complex. As a result, junior designers, having different areas of expertise, appear to have moved quickly among the various pool projects. The department produced designs and construction documents simultaneously with great speed so that eleven pools and hundreds of other park projects, including some massive undertakings like Orchard Beach, were completed within a few years. Aymar Embury II and Gilmore D. Clarke, respectively the Parks Department’s Consulting Architect and Consulting Landscape Architect, were employed by the City on a part-time basis to oversee designs for park projects under Robert Moses. William H. Latham, the head of the Division of Design at the time, was the Park Engineer, responsible for the preparation of all plans and specifications within the department.
Major design problems were discussed by Embury and Clarke before the preliminary sketches were made under Latham’s direction. Completed sketches were subject to approval by the Park Engineer, the General Superintendent, and Commissioner Moses. The consultants would give regular criticism during the preparations of the plans.
Aymar Embury II (1880-1966) was born in brand new York City and studied engineering at Princeton University, where he received a Master of Science degree in 1901. He acquired his architectural training through apprenticeships with three brand new York firms: George B. Post, Howells and Stokes, and Palmer and Hornbostel. He also worked for Cass Gilbert. In 1905, Embury won both first and second prize in a contest held by the Garden City Company for a modest country house to be built in Garden City, Long Island. This gained for him a reputation as a talented designer, and led to many commissions for country houses in the brand new York metropolitan area. He subsequently published seven books and several pamphlets, mainly on early American architecture, establishing him as an authority on that subject. By the start of the Great Depression, he was well-known and had received a wide range of commissions all over the east coast of the United States, including college buildings and social clubs, in addition to residences.
He designed the Players and Nassau Clubs in Princeton, brand new Jersey, the Princeton Club in brand new York City, and the University Club in Washington, D.C. Embury was said to have supervised the design of over six hundred public projects, including Orchard Beach, Bryant Park, the brand new York City Building at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Donnell Branch of the brand new York Public Library, the Hofstra University Campus, the Central Park and Prospect Park Zoos, Jacob Riis Park, five of the eleven neighborhood pool and play centers, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and many more.
The lead architect for each pool project generally designed the bath house, which was unique to each site, establishing the motif that guided the design and detailing of the rest of the complex. Although each pool complex has been credited to a particular architect, the designs appear to actually have been collaborative efforts among the army of architects, draftsmen, engineers, and landscape architects employed by the Parks Department in the 1930s.
The Betsy Head Play Center bath house was designed by architect John Matthews Hatton who was born c. 1886 in Iowa, and first appears in brand new York City directories in 1915. His professional training remains undetermined, but he practiced architecture in brand new York City into the late 1940s. In the early 1920s, he formed a partnership with architect Diego DeSuarez (DeSuarez & Hatton), which lasted only a few years. In addition to the Betsy Head bath house, his other works for the Department of Parks in the 1930s include the Astoria Play Center in Queens and Pelham Bay Park golf clubhouse. In the 1940s, he was considered an expert in store modernization (lighting, space layout, customer comfort, display, fixture, and storefronts) and his designs for commercial spaces and storefronts were published in several architectural periodicals. Among his clients was the Stetson Hat Company. He also did work for the brand new York City Housing Authority in the 1940s.
Gilmore D. Clarke appears to have been directly involved with the landscaping of the pool complex, signing approval on several of the plans for the park. Clarke (1892-1982) was born in brand new York City and studied landscape architecture and civil engineering at Cornell University, from which he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1913. He served as an engineer in the army during the First World War, receiving many citations and decorations, and remained in the Army Reserve Corps until 1939. During the 1920s, he served on several local, state and federal commissions as landscape architect, including the Architectural Advisory Board for the United States Capital, the brand new York State Council of Parks (which was headed by Robert Moses), and the Westchester County Park Commission, among many others. For his work in Westchester County, which included the Rye Beach Playland, the Saw Mill River Parkway, and the Bronx River Parkway, Clarke was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor in Landscape Architecture from the Architectural League of brand new York in 1931. By the time of the Great Depression, Clarke was already established as the most popular landscape architect in public works in America.
His career advanced during the 1930s. Besides being hired by Robert Moses as the Consulting Landscape Architect to the brand new York City Parks Department, he also became a member of the National Commission on Fine Arts, the brand new York State Planning Council, and the Board of Design for the 1939 brand new York World’s Fair. In addition to the Betsy Head Play Center, his work for the Parks Department included Bryant Park, Central Park Zoo, City Hall Park, Orchard Beach, and the Henry Hudson Parkway. He taught landscape architecture at Cornell University from 1935 to 1950, serving as dean from 1939 until his retirement in 1950 and wrote several articles for trade periodicals. In 1935, Clarke joined Michael Rapuano, an engineer and landscape architect, establishing the brand new York civil engineering and landscape architectural firm Clarke & Rapuano, Inc. Clarke was president of the firm from 1962 until his retirement in 1972. Later in his career, Clarke worked as a consultant on the construction of the United Nations Headquarters in brand new York and became a Trustee for the American Museum of Natural History.
Brownsville in the decades after the pool opened gradually shifted from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood to an African-American one. Between 1925 and 1940, as the overall population of Brooklyn increased, Brownsville experienced a rapid decline. After the Second World War, Robert Moses proposed the construction of public housing for the area to counter its aging building stock. The African-American population in Brownsville totaled 14,209 and would continue to grow, despite the fact Jewish residents continued to dominate the district in the years just after the war. Since that time, Brownsville and East brand new York have become African-American neighborhoods, and it is this group that benefits from the Betsy Head Play Center today. Notable boxing figures, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson–who, in the 1990s, became heavyweight champions of the world–lived in Brownsville; Bowe was known to have jogged around the Betsy Head pool in his youth.
As for the subsequent history of the Betsy Head Play Center itself, by the late 1970s it and many other WPA pools had become badly run down, partially the result of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s which hit the Parks Department particularly hard. By March 1981, the Parks Department workforce had dwindled to a record low of 2,900 employees, mostly unskilled and temporary, as compared to the 30,000 parks employees on staff during the Moses administration. The strain on Parks Department resources was evident in the deplorable conditions of many of its facilities. To address the rapid deterioration of its recreational facilities, in 1977 the Parks Department began a major capital construction program involving more than 500 projects, expected to total more than $180 million, partly in Federal funds – the first such projects undertaken by the parks system since the fiscal crisis halted such work in 1975, and arguably the most ambitious program to improve the parks since the 1940s.
Among the projects planned was a $10 million plan to preserve Prospect Park, a $1 million renovation of the Coney Island Boardwalk, and restorations of several WPA-era pools, such as Sunset Park and Jackie Robinson (Colonial Park) in Harlem.
In 1979, an estimated $5.2 million was budgeted for the restoration of the Betsy Head Play Center. Over the next three years, the pool complex was closed to the public as the swimming and diving pools were reconstructed and the bath house received brand new locker room facilities that were handicap-accessible. brand new landscaping and the rehabilitation of the baseball fields, track and other recreational facilities within the park also occurred during this period. On June 28, 1983, a dedication ceremony was held at the Betsy Head Play Center to mark the completion of rehabilitation efforts and to re-open the pool to the public; in attendance were Mayor Edward I. Koch, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, City Councilmembers Enoch Williams and Priscilla Wooten, Deputy Brooklyn Borough President William C. Thompson, community leaders and hundreds of neighborhood children. The Morningside Diving Association held a diving exhibition in honor of the occasion.
Mayor Koch remarked, “Three or four generations of Brownsville residents and people from all over Brooklyn have mastered the arts of running, jumping and swimming at this pool and sports complex. The massive rehabilitation of this facility is part of the city’s ongoing effort to make all of our neighborhoods vital places to live.” The Parks Department called the renovations of the WPA-era pools “an essential part of the revitalization [of] the entire public recreational infrastructure of the city,” helping transform the aging pools back into modern recreational facilities.
The WPA-era pools faced a brand new set of challenges beginning in the mid-1980s, with pools like the Crotona Play Center in the Bronx becoming infamous for vandalism and walkways littered with broken glass. In 1991, Mayor David Dinkins proposed closing the pools as part of a package of budget cuts. Only a donation of $2 million from a private donor, real estate magnate Sol Goldman, guaranteed the pools would be kept open for at least a portion of that summer; an additional $1.8 million was still needed to cover the entire nine-week long swimming season. In the mid-1990s, a menacing ritual known as “whirlpooling” had become common throughout the pool system, a practice characterized by groups of teenage boys locking arms and shoulders, churning the water and disrupting the activities of other swimmers, particularly women who often found themselves unwillingly fondled. Several more serious complaints of sexual assault were recorded throughout the pool system in the summer of 1994.
With improvements in security staffing and increased vigilance on the part of patrons, many of the problems of the 1990s did eventually dissipate, and by 2003, the pools were once again touted as both extremely safe, and a welcome alternative on a hot summer day.
The Architecture and Site of the Betsy Head Play Center
The brand new Deal construction projects within brand new York City, such as the Betsy Head Play Center, were a part of a national trend that included similar projects undertaken by various governmental agencies, ranging from the vast Tennessee Valley Authority to smaller cities and towns. Urban projects built with WPA funding often possessed similar qualities from region to region, partly because the difficult economic climate dictated the use of inexpensive building materials, but also because the programs provided employment opportunities for a generation of young architects and engineers, many of whom were committed to modernism. For example, the bath house and waterfront facilities at Aquatic Park in San Francisco are similar in plan and appearance to the public pool and beachfront projects being built at about the same time in brand new York City.
The California facility, with its streamlined, concrete façade and steel-framed windows, bears a striking resemblance to the façade added in 1936 with WPA funds to the bath house at Jacob Riis Park in Queens. The original and creative use made of these modest materials by Moses’ talented design teams and the careful siting of each project makes every one of them a distinguished, individual design, as much related to their specific environment and needs as to one another.
The implementation of a modern aesthetic in the design of the WPA pools stands as a testament to the influence of the young designers on Moses’ team; Aymar Embury II, who oversaw the design of the eleven neighborhood pools, was generally a traditionalist with little patience for modernism. In a 1938 interview, Embury was quoted as having said:
If an architect has any function, it is to coordinate units so that they do a required job and at the same time create a pleasant emotion. Modernists believe that the essence of their work is to do something that has never been done before. They leave off all ornamentation because, they say, the ornaments do not aid the structure to do its job. I suppose some of these architects do not use neckties or buttons when they dress.
More so than the other WPA pools, which were constructed at earlier dates, the Betsy Head bath house’s sleek geometric forms stripped of most ornament has been recognized as “perhaps the most inventive and most overtly Modernist structure of this type.” Its cantilevered canopy on the roof is the most notable feature of the bath house; a concrete slab and eight parabolic arches all clad in metal panels once provided shade to onlookers watching pool activities such as water pageants and diving competitions below. An article written by noted architect Ely Jacques Kahn in the Architectural Record praised the rooftop structure and its underlying stepped stadium used as bleachers for “[recapturing] most of the park area occupied by the building.” The rooftop terrace was accessed from stairs on either side of the bath house, and admission was free. The building’s “multiplicity of uses,” including the roof deck as well as the wintertime conversion of the locker rooms into much-needed neighborhood recreational space, was applauded by Kahn.
Materials at the play center were also carefully considered. Like Hatton’s earlier design for the Astoria Play Center bath house (1936) in Queens, the Brownsville structure makes extensive use of glass block wall construction; eight recessed glass block windows between brick piers on either side of the bath house allow ample natural light into the interior spaces, and the curved walls marking the entrances to the men’s and women’s locker rooms were once clad in glass block as well. Below the windows are concrete panels incised with a pattern reminiscent of ocean waves. Moses believed that the plan for the bath house was “better than that adopted in any of the existing pools and provides for a far more efficient utilization of the space available.” The curved glass walls that frame the lobby entrance invite bathers into the space, and they were once greeted by a football-shaped ticket booth that is extant, but no longer in operation. Cleverly designed and engineered, the brick pier in the lobby extends through the ceiling to the roof where it is clad in glass block and once functioned as a light source for evening activities. Vents also serving as light shafts at roof level were located above the men’s and women’s shower rooms, but have since been removed. Still retaining the majority of its elements, the exceptional Modern design of the Betsy Head Play Center continues to serve as a striking addition to the Brownsville neighborhood.
Plan and Circulation
Betsy Head Play Center is set within the 10.55 acres of Betsy Head Park, which is bounded by Dumont Avenue to the north, Livonia Avenue to the south, Strauss Street to the west and Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue) to the east. The play center is located in the eastern section of the park along Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue). The landmark site excludes the baseball fields to the west of the pool complex. Pool visitors enter the play center through the main entrance on the east façade of the bath house facing Thomas Boyland Street (Hopkinson Avenue). Use of the pool complex is right now free so patrons do not have to go to the ticket booth once they pass through the entryway; the ticket booth is thus purely ornamental. After entering the bath house lobby, men go to the locker rooms and showers located on the north wing of the bath house and women go to the locker rooms and showers located on the south wing. From there, they enter the pool deck from their respective doors, which are marked by curved walls that are set into the bath house structure (these historically were clad in glass blocks).
Bathers swim in the Olympic-size swimming pool, which measures 330 feet by 165 feet. Bathers may also sit on the concrete bleachers located on the southern edge of the pool complex next to the filter house. Bleachers exist on the roof of the bath house under the metal canopy, although the public no longer has access to the roof. The diving pool was filled-in with sand in 2005-2006 and right now serves as a volleyball court. Wrought-iron fencing runs along the perimeter of the pool complex on the Livonia and Dumont Avenue sides. There is no wading pool located within the landmark site. The Bath House
The one-story brick and concrete bath house includes a rooftop metal canopy. The men’s locker and shower rooms are located in the north wing of the bath house and the women’s locker and shower rooms are located in the south wing.
East façade (street side). The east façade consists of a central section flanked by shower rooms. The central section is clad in English Common bond brick except at the piers, which are clad in Monk bond brick (two stretchers to one header in each row). Each pier has a cast stone base and capital. There are four window bays on either side of the main entrance that have large glass block windows divided by two mullions. Some of these glass block windows were repaired or replaced during the early 1980s rehabilitation. Below each window is a short cast concrete wall that features a subtle decorative “wave” detail at the top. Cast stone coping runs the length of the base and top of the façade, and a historic metal railing is located at the edge of the roof. The main entrance has two glass block curved walls and a historic metal gate. A portion of the stone steps leading up to the bath house was replaced by a handicapped ramp in the early 1980s. The letters “B E T S Y H E A D P L A Y C E N T E R” are carved into the stone at the top of the façade over the main entrance.
The men’s and women’s shower rooms mirror each other in design and are both clad in English Common bond brick. A glass block ribbon window is set into the brick and a cast stone water table runs along the base. Doors with non-historic metal roll down gates (these were historically metal and were replaced in the early 1980s) are located at the end of each shower room wall. Three stone steps lead up to the door and although it provides access to the roof deck, the public can no longer use the roof. Historic metal railings sit at the edge of the roof.
West façade (pool side). The west façade consists of a central section flanked by shower rooms. The central section is clad in English Common bond brick except at the piers, which are clad in Monk bond brick (two stretchers to one header in each row). Each pier has a cast stone base and capital. There are four window bays on either side of the main entrance that have large glass block windows divided by two mullions. Some of these glass block windows were repaired or replaced during the early 1980s rehabilitation. Below each window is a short cast concrete wall that features a subtle decorative “wave” detail at the top. Cast stone coping runs the length of the base and top of the façade, and a historic metal railing is located at the edge of the roof. The main entrance has two glass block curved walls. The curved wall on the northern end was altered in the early 1980s to accommodate the addition of an elevator; a vertical strip with a vent has been inserted into the glass block wall.
Above the central entrance is a clock that features red metal pieces on a non-historic white circular background (historically, the clock consisted of metal hour bars and hour/minute hands set into the brick wall). Two steps run the length of the central entrance (and once ran the length of the central section of this façade until the handicapped ramps were added during the early 1980s rehabilitation).
The men’s and women’s shower rooms are identical in design, clad in English Common bond brick and feature recessed curved entrances that were once clad in glass block, but were later replaced with cinder blocks made to imitate the shape and pattern of glass block. The historic metal letters “M E N” and “W O M E N” are still extant above their respective shower room entrances. Non-historic metal roll-down doors have replaced the historic ones. Planters on either side of the entrances rest on stepped cast stone platforms, which were once the location of fountains (spouts still exist on the brick wall a few feet above). Footbaths once existed on the ground within the curved space, but they have since been filled in with cement to match the rest of the pool deck. A non-historic metal double door entry exists at the setback portion of each shower room. A cement ramp leads up to the double doors on the women’s shower room side.
The perpendicular wall between the curved wall and this setback portion has a smaller glass block window whereas between the setback portion and the street façade there is an unornamented English Common bond brick wall. Photographs of the bath house in 1939 reveal that the stairway on the other side of this wall was once viewable from the street and so the wall sloped to match the rise of the stairway. There were no doors blocking access to the stairs. It is unclear when the wall was filled in to its current condition, but English Common bond brick was used to match the rest of the façade. Historic metal railings sit at the edge of the roof.
Bath house lobby. The lobby does not have walls on the street and pool sides (only those that separate the lobby space from the locker rooms) thus allowing for natural light in the space. The floor is paved in bluestone. At the center of the lobby is a large circular brick pier (right now painted red) that continues through the ceiling and to the roof where it is clad in glass block. The football-shaped ticket booth located between the central pier and the street side entrance is surrounded by metal and is therefore not visible. The condition of the ticket booth is unclear. On the street side of the lobby an historic metal fixed gate runs the length of the opening and a matching historic metal gate directly above was designed to roll up and down, although this function is presumably not used anymore. On the pool side of the lobby a non-historic chain-link fence has been mounted to an historic metal gate.
The door at this gate is for staff use only. The white plaster ceiling forms a concentric square pattern that is stepped so that the innermost square is raised higher than the outermost one. The dropped ceiling at the pool side entrance is made of stone panels with metal bosses.
The men’s and women’s locker rooms are located on the north and south walls, respectively. They both are clad in marble panels with smaller bronze rosettes except at the top where plaster has been applied. An air conditioner protrudes from each wall on the street side end. Central non-historic metal double doors (historically these were wood double doors) mark the entrance to each locker room; above these doors are incised and silvered Art Deco-style letters “M E N” and “W O M E N” that are set into the marble. On the men’s locker room side there is a single non-historic metal door (historically wood) with incised and silvered Art Deco-style letters “O F F I C E” to the left of the double doors. A marble inset to the right of the double doors has various Betsy Head dedication dates incised and silvered in the Art Deco style; the inset is the size of the other single door openings in the lobby.
On the women’s locker room side to the left of the double doors is a recess once used for telephones (incised and silvered Art Deco-style letters above read “T E L E P H O N E”), but is right now occupied by a vending machine. To the right of the double doors is a single non-historic metal door (historically wood) with incised and silvered Art Deco-style letters “F I R S T A I D” above. Although the 1939 drawings for the brand new bath house indicate that the original intention was to have the letters “L I F E G U A R D S” above this door, it is unclear if this was later altered or never realized.
Roof and Canopy. The main feature of the roof is the historic metal canopy and its eight parabolic arches clad in metal panels. The canopy is largely unaltered although the original drawings and 1939 photographs reveal that smooth cement stucco was applied to the metal lath of the canopy and parabolic arches. The canopy roof appears to have been white while the arches were black. The stucco has since been removed, leaving beams, rivets and other structural elements exposed. The roof canopy and arches sit atop what were once concrete bleachers and are right now covered in tar. The Pool and Deck Area
Located to the west of the bath house, the Olympic-sized swimming pool forms a rectangle with its long axis running from north to south. To the south of the pool is the rectangular diving pool with its long axis running from west to east. In the swimming pool there are two islands with triangular caps that house the filtration systems (these were historically fountains that were covered in metal to prevent children from climbing on them during the early 1980s renovation). The entire deck is paved in cement. A chain-link fence separates the pool area from the baseball fields and Dumont Avenue. Historic lampposts are located around the pool: three (excluding one that is missing) on the east side; three (excluding one that is missing) on the south side; seven on the west side; and four on the north side.
Diving pool. The diving pool is right now filled in and used as a volleyball court, similar to other WPA-era pools. The volleyball court is separated from the swimming pool by a large non-historic chain-link fence. To the east of the diving pool and south of the bath house there is a large open space enclosed by perimeter fence and paved in cement. In the winter the Parks Department uses this area for storage.
Bleachers and filter house. To the south of the volleyball court are the concrete bleachers, which have a non-historic metal railing on the east end. Although resurfaced, the bleachers date to the 1917 bath house complex, as do the adjacent Flemish bond brick filter house to the west and the Flemish bond brick wall, stone coping and wrought iron fence at the top of the bleachers. Four lampposts sit atop brick piers that are part of the Flemish bond brick wall (a description of the Livonia Street side of this brick wall can be found below). The filter house has stone coping, red-painted bricks and a non-historic metal door on the pool side. Its west façade has cement and Flemish bond brick with a door that has been filled-in with 5:1 Common bond brick. Attached to the filter house is a Flemish bond brick wall that fronts Livonia Street, in addition to a chain-link fence.
On the Livonia Street side, the Flemish bond brick wall that supports the bleachers has five bull’s eye windows that are filled-in with metal. A stone water table runs the length of the wall as does stone coping. The wall also forms the backside of the filter house, which on this façade has non-historic metal double doors with a painted glass-block transom (presumably the glass block was historically left unpainted). A brick soldier course runs the length of the transom. Stone steps and stone sides lead up to the doors. A historic wrought-iron fence runs along the perimeter of the landmark site.
– From the 2008 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report