By Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
We have the Great Depression and Robert Moses to thank for one of New York City’s biggest public swimming pools, the Sol Goldman Pool in the Red Hook Play Center at 155 Bay Street in Red Hook. Designed to accommodate more than 4,462 people at a time, the landmarked streamlined Art Moderne complex, also known as the Red Hook Recreation Center, was needed to improve public health and bring relief to people living in poor, crowded areas of Brooklyn far from recreational beaches. It opened to great fanfare in 1936.
Red Hook Was an Industrial Powerhouse
By the beginning of the 20th century, Red Hook was the most important shipping site in Brooklyn. Home to two large artificial shipping basins, the Atlantic Docks and the Erie Docks, as well as the space between them, Red Hook’s shoreline bustled with workers, ships and goods. The shoreline had attracted shipping for over a century, but the Erie Canal, followed by the Civil War and its industrial aftermath, made Red Hook a financial and economic powerhouse.
Of course, all this activity meant that an enormous work force was needed. Much of it came from the immigrant groups that were drawn to the jobs and the sea, making the area a polyglot mix of nations and languages. The Irish, Scandinavians and Germans were first, followed by Italians, Puerto Ricans and African Americans. Everyone needed a place to live, so Red Hook and the communities adjacent to it became crowded with housing as well as industry.
Speculative one-family row houses soon became boarding houses and flats. But then, as now, there was never enough affordable housing, and in the days before social programs and services, people found themselves living in horrible conditions, some even squatting in areas shared by livestock.
The docks, wherever they may be, have always had a tough reputation. Red Hook was no different. Rowdy and belligerent sailors often roamed the streets after nights of drinking, and local toughs made the papers for street gang activity. By the 1920s, Red Hook had a reputation for being run by the Mob and organized crime. Notorious gangster Al Capone got his start here — as well as the injury that gave him his nickname, Scarface.
By the 1930s, just across the river, but a world away from the gritty streets of South Brooklyn, New York City’s planners were hard at work shaping a city. The Great Depression had the city, along with the rest of the nation, in its grip. The mayor at the time was the feisty Fiorello LaGuardia. The Parks Commissioner, and most powerful man in the administration, was Robert Moses.
Moses consolidated all five boroughs’ parks departments into one, which was completely and solely in his charge. He had a comprehensive plan for parks even before being officially appointed in 1934. No sooner had he taken the oath of office than he hit the ground running. His ambitious plans included building recreation centers and swimming pools in some of the city’s poorest and most crowded neighborhoods. Red Hook was one of them.
They Call Them “Bathing Suits” for a Reason
Public swimming pools in New York City are an outgrowth of public health initiatives begun in the late 1800s. By that time, the upper classes, encouraged by a booming bath and plumbing industry, had taken to personal cleanliness. The “great unwashed” — thousands of immigrants and poor people in the city’s slums — had little access to modern plumbing. Communicable diseases abounded and threatened everyone.
As early as 1870, the city began by building floating pools anchored to the docks along its rivers. These pools allowed people to get wet, clean and cool off in the summer. But they were small, inadequate and crowded. Even before the end of the century, the rivers and bay were too polluted to allow swimmers but the pools stayed open anyway.
In the early 20th century, after much delay and nonsense, public baths were built near poor neighborhoods. Here in Red Hook, the nearest public bath, which included showers, was the ornate Public Bath No. 7, at the corner of 4th Avenue and President Street, built to mainly serve the residents of Gowanus. It didn’t open until 1910, by which time tenement laws had changed, and landlords had to supply running water and bathtubs in apartments.
Twenty years later, the Great Depression ground many social reforms to a halt. But Robert Moses had access to millions of dollars, filtered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This federal program subsidized the building of parks and recreation centers, as well as schools, housing and other civic projects. An avid swimmer, Moses wanted to build city swimming pools.
He assembled a large and impressive cadre of architects, engineers, landscape architects, planners and staff for his Parks Department. Aymar Embury II and John M. Hatton were his chief architects, while Gilmore D. Clarke was his chief civil engineer and landscape architect. The Parks Department Division of Design employed close to 600 people, who mostly worked out of their headquarters at the old Arsenal building in Central Park.
By 1934, work was under way to build 11 new pools in New York City. One of them was the Red Hook pool. It was the last of the pools to be completed and opened with a splash in the evening of August 17, 1936. More than 40,000 people attended the ceremonies. In the pool enclosure, 6,500 of them crowded to hear the speeches, glimpse the dignitaries, and perhaps get a chance to take a dip in the enormous state-of-the-art pool.
Building the Red Hook Pool and Play Center
The pool was part of a larger recreation center built on land purchased by the city for maritime use in 1913. It was never developed and was ceded to Parks in 1934. The bath houses were the heart of the recreation centers. They had male and female locker room sections that could double as gymnasiums in the off-seasons. Beyond them were the main pool and separate smaller wading and diving pools.
Each pool had concrete bleachers from which swimmers could be viewed, people could sunbathe, and audiences could watch swimming competitions. The pools had state-of-the-art underwater lighting, heating and water circulation systems.
To save money, all the pool complexes were designed in low-cost brick and concrete. The centers were designed in the popular curved and streamlined Art Moderne style, the new industrial style that grew out of Art Deco. Although the credit for the design of the Red Hook complex is given to Aymar Embury II, it was really executed by his assistant Joseph L. Hautman, with considerable help from draftsmen A. Caputo and Charles Leonardi.
Architect Gilmore D. Clarke was the master planner and landscape designer of the Red Hook Recreational Center. He was also on the architectural team that designed the Red Hook Houses, which were built in 1938. He would later design two World’s Fairs with Moses, and much later, was a consultant for the United Nations complex.
The Red Hook pools could accommodate 4,462 bathers. The wading pool was built across the street, and was eventually converted into basketball courts. In 1983, the pool was closed and a multi-million dollar renovation project was begun. The main pool and deck were refurbished. The diving pool was converted into a wading pool, and new filtration and water purification systems were installed.
The locker rooms and bathrooms were refurbished, and the biggest change, a new annex, was created. It connects the old sections together and adds new and necessary services and amenities. The original Art Moderne entrances were retained and worked into the new building.
The pool is officially named for Sol Goodman, a New York real estate mogul. Among other holdings, his company owned the Chrysler Building. During the 1991 fiscal crisis, Goldman donated $2 million to the city’s parks to keep the outdoor pools open that summer. The Red Hook pool was renamed in his honor.
After years of advocating for landmarking, the Red Hook Play Center (Sol Goldman Pool) became a New York City Landmark in 2008. Today, the pools are more popular, and necessary, than ever.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless indicated otherwise]