Public Baths

Public Baths
8/30/2006 02:42 PM
Public Baths

At the turn of the 20th century, New York was a densely populated industrial city with many of the city's residents living in squalid tenement homes that lacked facilities for regular bathing. In keeping with the strong progressive spirit of that era, the city built "public baths" that were buildings of showers intended to promote personal cleanliness and, ultimately, Godliness and good civic behavior. As private bathrooms became more universal, the bathhouses became unnecessary and most were decommissioned soon after the end of World War II, although at least one bath held out until the city's financial crisis closed it in the 1970s.

Many of the buildings were substantial works of architecture and, surprisingly, have survived to the time of this writing (Fall 2006). Some were located in public parks and since they often included other recreational facilities, they naturally became recreational centers. Others were cleared to make way for large public housing projects or, in a few cases, stood quietly as high-rise housing was built around them. This page contains photos of the remaining bathhouse buildings.

New York City's Public Baths should not be confused with the variety of recreational baths (e.g. Turkish Baths) that have also been a part of New York life for decades. They are also usually distinct from the "bath houses" where gay men had been meeting which since the late 19th century to engage in clandestine and/or anonymous sexual activity. Indeed, the widespread opening of exclusively gay bath houses did not occur until after World War II, when most of New York's public baths began closing.

History

Notable examples of public bathing from antiquity include the lavish baths of the Romans and the ritual bathing of the Egyptians and Hebrews. With the fall of the Roman Empire, public bathing also fell out of favor in the West until after the 13th century when public baths became commonplace in European cities, possibly from the influence of contacts with Byzantine and Muslim cultures during the Crusades. Public bathing was suppressed by changes in morality during the 17th century Reformation but made a comeback with the early 19th century industrial revolution and increased urban density. The use of showers for mass bathing became common in the middle 19th century beginning with barracks installations by the French and German military.

In a time before plentiful, heated running water, European Americans followed the continental custom of rarely washing the entire body. With the advent in the mid-19th century of municipal water and sewage systems, bathing for the middle and upper class became more commonplace with both commercial bathhouses and private bathing facilities in homes. This trend was also encouraged by an increasing understanding of the importance of cleanliness to health and urban reformers as early as the 1840s were advocating for the provision of public bathing facilities for the poor.

In 1849 the New York state legislature authorized the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) to incorporate the People's Bathing and Washing Association and build a public bath. The People's Bathing and Washing Establishment opened at 141 Mott Street in 1852. Although serving around 60,000 patrons a year, the bath never became financially self-sufficient and closed with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

Following the war, New York City followed Boston's example by building comparatively inexpensive floating public bathing facilities in surrounding rivers that could be used in the Summer months. These floating baths had dressing rooms and were basically floating wooden swimming pools that were docked by the river edge and filled with river water. The first two floating baths were opened in 1870 and by 1888 the city was operating fifteen free baths, serving an average of 2.5 million men and 1.5 million women a year. While advocates and civic authorities viewed their purpose as hygienic, patrons, especially young boys, saw them as recreational facilities, necessitating imposition of 25-minute time restrictions. These facilities continued to exist well into the 20th century, although river pollution required the installation of filtration machinery.

Because of their seasonality, the floating baths were not an adequate solution for New York's expanding and disease-ridden slums. A wider understanding of germ theory added a scientific patina to idealistic progressive beliefs that promotion of personal cleanliness would result in increased self-respect, a desire for self-improvement and, subsequently, improved material and moral conditions. Bathing was also seen as a habit that would promote the Americanization of the burgeoning immigrant population as they threw off their unsanitary old-world habits. This idealism ran into conflict with an equally irrational Gilded Age aversion to government intervention against the natural order, which has eerie parallels to contemporary political conservatism. But as an increasing percentage of New York's citizens were living in densely populated buildings with no bathing facilities, the need for a solution became inescapable. One solution was the construction of a mass transportation system that would reduce urban density by permitting workers to live beyond walking distance of their jobs.

Another solution was the construction of public baths.

On April 21, 1895, New York State legislature passed a law (Chapter 351) requiring all first- and second-class cities in the state (at that time, New York City, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Troy, and Utica) to build public bathing facilities. However, complex political, financing and siting issues delayed opening of the first bath (Rivington Street) until 1901.

Although the 20 municipal baths did achieve significant levels of patronage, especially on hot Summer days, the 7.5 million baths offered at the height of of the operations in 1920 was significantly below the theoretical annual capacity of 20 million. The Tenement House Law of 1901 (passed the same year as the opening of the first bath) required new apartments to provide toilet facilities and most landlords chose to include baths as well. The bathhouse movement had accomplished its goals by 1915 and quietly ceased its activism. The bathhouses were renovated by the WPA in the 1930s and continued to operate through World War II. However, after the war most of the bathhouses were converted to other uses or demolished to make way for other structures or expanded parkland. The final survivor, the Allen Street Bath, finally closed during the city's financial crisis of the 1970s.

The quintessential reference on public baths in the United States is Marilyn Thornton Williams' book, Washing "The Great Unwashed" - Public Baths in Urban America, 1840 - 1920.. While this book is long out of print, Ohio State Press has a PDF version that can be downloaded or read online.. This book includes a fascinating look into the complex political machinations behind the scenes of the public bath movement and is highly recommended. The New York City Parks Department website also contains some information on specific bathhouse buildings, primarily on historic markers.

141 Mott People's Bath

Opened: 1852
Cost: $42,000
(North of Canal Street in Chinatown)

This building substantially predates the other buildings, as it was the beginning and end of a nascent public bath movement in the mid 19th century. The bath included laundry facilities, a swimming pool and separate tubs for men and women. The facility was only open in summer months (no hot water?). Laundry cost three cents and a bath five to ten cents, which proved too expensive for the impoverished clientele that the facility was built to serve. The bath closed in 1861.

The bath was in operation before this became Chinatown in the 1870s. The address is currently (Fall 2006) a retail / residential building on a bustling commercial street. The building seems a bit small for all the facilities that were located there and it is certainly possible that this building is of later vintage.

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9 Centre Market Place People's Baths

Built: 1891
Cost: 27,025
(just north of Grand Street between Centre and Mulberry)

The People's Baths was a prototype public bath built with private contributions by the AICP on land owned by the City Mission and Tract Society. It had 23 showers and three bathtubs, with each bathing compartment consisting of a 3.5' x 4' dressing room and a similarly size shower. A bath cost 5 cents, which included a towel and soap. Patronage grew from 10,504 baths in 1891 to 115,685 in 1898 and the facility received extensive public and press attention. With the opening of city-funded facilities beginning in 1901, the The People's Bath had accomplished its purpose and closed in 1909. The address is now a parking lot on a quiet street just to the East of the old Police Headquarters.

The Old Police Headquarters is a large and attractive building on at 240 Centre Street that opened in 1910 just after the People's Baths closed just to the East. The police department moved to a hideous "brutalist" style building near the Municipal Building on Park Row in 1973 and the Old Police Headquarters was converted to luxury apartments in 1987.

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326 Rivington

Opened March 23, 1901
Original Cost: $95,691

The Rivington Street Public Bath was the first of the municipally-funded public baths in New York City resulting from the efforts of the progressive public bath movement. Ground was broken in December 1897 for a large building with 91 showers and 10 bathtubs. The building was intended to serve the largely Jewish population of the Lower East Side.

At the time of this writing (Fall 2006) the building is abandoned and nestled in the middle of Baruch Houses, a 2,200-apartment NYC Housing Authority complex that was completed in 1959. Coincidentally, the complex is named after Bernard Baruch, who was the son of Simon Baruch, a physician commonly regarded as the father of the public bath movement in the United States. The high-rise complex was an urban renewal effort created by demolishing area tenements. The area's street grid was altered by this development, terminating Rivington Street West of the complex and isolating this incongruous but substantial building in its midst.

The dilapidated building was closed and sealed in 1975 during the city's financial crisis, leaving only one obvious entrance door at the front. The foliage growing out of the top of the building may be indicative of compromised roofing that would leave what is left of the interior unusable. Ironically, although the real estate on which the building sits is probably of substantial value, ownership by the city in the middle of public housing probably means that this building may remain standing - ignored and unloved - for many years to come.
(historical sign)

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5 Rutgers Place

Opened: 1909
Cost: $264,195

The 5 Rutgers Place bathhouse is currently surrounded by the 1,100-apartment LaGuardia Houses NYC Housing Authority complex that was completed in 1957. This complex is just to the East of the Manhattan bridge and South of East Broadway. As with the Rivington Street building, the building of the housing complex resulted in the demolition of the surrounding tenements and street grid, removing Rutgers Place from the map and isolating this building. The complex is bounded by the current Rutgers, Madison, Clinton and Cherry streets. Also as with Rivington Street, the building is abandoned and was probably bricked in during the mid 1970's financial crisis.

A young resident of the complex noticed me taking photos and asked whether I was with the city and what was going to happen to the building. When I responding that I was just taking photos for my website, he expressed his opinion that the building was a blight and should either be torn down or renovated for use by the community. I mentioned that I shared his opinion and would convey it here. But until we elect civic leaders with a more progressive attitude towards the renovation and development of urban infrastructure, this relic may retain its funereal, pallid charm for some time to come.

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133 Allen

Opened: 1905
Cost: $127,740

The Allen Street bath was located in what was, for most of the 20th Century, a red-light district. The bath was the final survivor of the 20 public baths, closing in 1975 during the city's financial crisis. The building was sealed in 1988, auctioned off in 1992, and as of this writing (Fall 2006) is home to the Church of Grace to Fujianese, a Chinese congregation.

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Seward Park

(Jefferson at Canal / East Broadway)

The city acquired the land for Seward Park by condemnation in 1897 but left the site unimproved until the Outdoor Recreation League (ORL) included the park with the nine privately-sponsored playgrounds they opened between 1898 and 1902. Seward Park opened in the north corner of the park on October 17, 1903 as the country's first municipally-built playground. The playground was a prototype for other playgrounds around the city and country with cinder surfacing, fences, a recreation pavilion, and play and gymnastic equipment. The 1903 park design also incorporated a large running track, a children's farm garden and a terra cotta pavilion with marble baths, a gymnasium and meeting rooms.

The pavilion (and, presumably, the bathhouse) was demolished in 1936, around the time the Schiff Fountain (designed in 1895 by Arnold Brunner, who also designed the 23rd Street Bathhouse) was moved to Seward Park from Rutgers Park. The Seward Park bath house was just a few blocks North of the Rutgers Place bath house (still extant), which may have been a factor in its decommissioning and demolition. A new recreation center built in 1941 with facilities for basketball, horseshoe-pitching, and shuffleboard courts, and a large paved area adaptable for roller skating, paddle tennis, and ice skating. (historical sign)

In 1957, a 13-acre slum to the east and north of the park was condemned and leveled to build the Seward Park Houses as a private, free-market co-op. 219 buildings (most dating well back into the 19th century) housing 4,300 people were demolished. The development that opened in 1960 consisted of four 20-story residential buildings housing 1,728 families, two commercial structures and a small office building. Thankfully, a lovely old branch library was spared in the "renewal".

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100 Cherry Street

Opened: 1909
Cost: $205,348
(South of Manhattan Bridge, between Catherine and Market)

I'm not entirely certain where this bath house was. The current address numbering scheme would place it where the Knickerbocker Village is currently located, although this may not have been true in 1909. The south side of Cherry street is Tanahey Playground, but that land was not condemned for park purposes until 1949. It is likely that the bathhouse was located on land that is currently the Alfred E. Smith Houses.

The Alfred E. Smith Houses is a 12-building, 1,931-unit NYCHA complex on 21.75 acres that was completed April 1, 1953. The superblock layout cut off Cherry Street at Catherine Street. The complex is named after a former NY governor (1919 - 1927) and Democratic presidential candidate (1928). Smith was also influential in early 20th century municipal redevelopment on the lower East side (where he was born). He is also notable for appointing future development czar Robert Moses to the NYS Council on Parks in 1924, a move that would lead to a radical transformation of infrastructure in the NYC metro area - not all of it for the best.

Within the complex, a possible location of the former bathhouse is the current Alfred Smith Recreation Center (erected in 1963), or perhaps the current Jacob August Riis School. An old high school behind the recreation center and next to the Alfred Smith Playground was spared the wrecking ball when the complex was built, although the school is now a family shelter.

Cherry Street used to run all the way Southwest to where the Brooklyn Bridge West approach currently stands. Number one Cherry Street was George Washington's presidential mansion. Tantilizingly, the anchorage contained habitable space at one point and two bricked-in entrances hidden behind on-ramps to the FDR drive are vaguely reminiscent of the separate men's/women's entrances used for bathhouses. However, it is unlikely that that address was ever 100 Cherry Street.

If the current numbering scheme is correct, Knickerbocker Village is the old location. Knickerbocker Village sits on five acres bounded by Catherine, Monroe, Cherry and Market streets and houses around 4,000 people in a sequence of 12-story buildings clustered around two central courtyards. At the time it was completed in 1933, it was unusual for its scale and it presaged the urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. The complex was built on the "Lung Block", an squalid group of overcrowded tenements with one of highest rates of tuberculosis in the city. 386 poor, mostly-Italian families were evicted to clear space for this new middle-class housing complex, partially built with Federal funds.

Regardless, the Cherry Street Public Bath was somewhere along here, serving Irish immigrants just south of a wonderful concrete arch under the Manhattan Bridge approach and only a few blocks from the Rutgers Place public bath. (historical sign), (historical sign).

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538 East 11th

Opened: 1905
Cost: $124,989

This bath house served a neighborhood of German and Irish immigrants. The building is one block north of Tompkins Square Park, a site initially selected in 1896 for a public bath but rejected in the face of significant community opposition. The building survives today as a private residence.

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83 Carmine Street

Opened: 1908
Cost: $210,144

The Carmine Street Public Bath was built to serve what was then one of New York's numerous "Little Italy" neighborhoods of Italian immigrants. The bath was built in what was then Hudson Park, which had been built on land that has been a cemetery for Trinity Church from 1812 to 1895. The park originally featured an elegant design by Carrere and Hastings, although most of that design has been lost in adaptations for expanded recreational use in 1903, 1935 and a complete paving in 1946. In 1947, the City Council renamed the park for James J. Walker, a colorful early 20th century mayor who had grown up in the neighborhood. (historical sign)

The building was designed by the firm of Renwick, Aspinwall and Tucker and featured showers and tubs on the first two floors, a gym on the third floor and an open air classroom for sickly children on the roof. The gym was updated in 1911 for weight-lifting and basketball. An indoor pool was added in 1920, altering the eastern facade. The Department of Parks assumed full jurisdiction over the bathhouse in 1938 and added an WPA-built outdoor pool in 1939. In 2004, the Carmine Recreation Center was renamed the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center after a neighborhood community board member and parks committee member who lead the successful battles to save Washington Square Park and the entire So Ho neighborhood from the ill-conceived highway plans of city planning despot Robert Moses. (historical sign)

Although originally addressed as 83 Carmine Street, the current address of the building is One Clarkson Street and it sits on the corner where Clarkson, Carmine, 7th Avenue and Varick Street meet. This area of what is now the West Village was one of the last irregular street networks plotted before the grid plan of 1811 imposed numeric order on new streets further North. In 1913 (after the bath house was already in operation), the city made a decision to extend Seventh Avenue to make construction of the IRT subway line (now the 1/2/3 train) easier and to satisfy real estate agents who wanted a wider North-South thoroughfare through the area to increase property values. The Seventh Avenue Extension cut a 100-foot wide path through the already-developed area, resulting in destruction of 194 buildings and the displacement thousands of residents while opening easier access to a neighborhood that had previously been rather quiet and isolated.

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East 23rd Street Bathhouse

Opened: 1908
Cost: $259,432
East 23rd Street at Avenue A

Perhaps the most lavish, substantial and well-preserved of the public bath buildings is the 23rd Street bath designed by architects Arnold W. Brunner and William Martin Aiken. The building was intended to echo the style of the ancient Roman baths and was inspired by the "City Beautiful" movement (also reflected in the ornate design of the original subway stations), that theorized that citizens would behave in a more civilized manner if they were surrounded by more civilized architecture. The Roman Revival style building (Neo-Roman) features vaulted ceilings, balconies, mullion windows, skylights, and stone urns. The building was built to serve what was then the primarily Irish immigrant residents of the "Gashouse District"

New outdoor swimming and diving pools and an expanded playground were added in 1936 with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation taking jurisdiction over the bathhouse and recreation center in 1938. In 1974 the building was landmarked and underwent and extensive renovation from 1988 to 1990. In 1993, the Asser Levy Playground opened as one of the first playgrounds in Manhattan build for disabled children.

The facility was renamed for Asser Levy, a Jewish colonial pioneer who fled Brazil with a group of 23 Jews and sought refuge in New Amsterdam in 1654. Levy survived strong challenges by dictatorial governor Peter Stuyvesant to become the first Jewish citizen of the colony, the first Jew to join the militia and own property, the New World's first kosher butcher and a founding member of the country's first Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, whose 1897 synagogue on Central Park West was co-designed by bathhouse architect Arnold Brunner. (historical sign)

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407 West 28th St

Opened: 1914
Cost: $226,000

The West 28th Street Bath was the penultimate public bath built as part of the early 20th century public bath movement. Although one additional bathhouse was built in Harlem in the late 1920s, construction of public park facilities was hereafter oriented towards recreation. In addition to showers and an indoor swimming pool, the building included public laundry facilities, a gymnasium with an indoor track, and a roof garden and playground. The bath was built to serve what was then a community of Irish immigrants.

The building is, obviously, gone, although I'm not exactly certain where it was. The block between 27th/28th streets and 9th/10th avenues is the current Chelsea Park. The north end of the park is home to a City Department of Health facility, but the building appears to be of 1930's vintage.

The address 407 should be on the north side of the street, which is home to the expansive Morgan Postal Facility. This building appears to be of relatively late vintage and could have been a reason for demolishing the old bath house. The Morgan Postal Facility is an intake and sorting building connected to the Farley Main Post office by tunnels. This facility is also notable as site contaminated by the 2001 anthrax attacks that followed soon after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

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325-327 East 38th Street - Milbank Memorial Bath

Opened: January 1904
Cost: $140,000

Although the city government began financing and constructing municipally-run baths at the turn of the century, there was still private philanthropic interest in the bath movement. In June 1902, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress to the Borden Condensed Milk Company fortune, announced that she would donate funds to the AICP sufficient to build a public bath. Milbank-Anderson was a leading NYC philanthropist, ultimately donating around $5 million to a number of institutions, primarily Barnard College.

The large facility could accommodate 3,000 bathers a day and, in 1914, added a wet-wash laundry. The building currently on that site appears to be of appropriate vintage and type and serves as the Republic of Indonesia's mission to the United Nations (just to the north at 42nd Street). Note the doors that could be separate men's/women's entrances.

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327 West 41st Street

Opened: 1904
Original cost: $135,300
(between 8th and 9th avenues)

The West 41st Street Bath was built on the northern end of what was then called "The Tenderloin", a notorious red-light district that extended down to 23rd street. The location near Times Square may have meant that the facility was intended to serve transients as well as neighborhood (predominantly Negro) residents. The neighborhood continued to be haven for the sex trade through the 20th Century, later becoming known as The Deuce.

As of this writing, 327 West 41st Street is the loading dock for the old McGraw-Hill Building, a skyscraper covered in distinctive blue-green terra cotta that opened in 1931. If the street numbering is the same as it was in 1904, that would make this one of the first bathhouses to fall to the wrecking ball. In 1949, the Port Authority Bus Terminal was built on the block just to the South between 40th and 41st streets and the terminal was expanded North in the late 1970s to occupy the half of the block just East of where the bathhouse may have stood. Regardless, there is nothing obvious remaining anywhere in the area to indicate the former bathhouse location.

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52nd Street at 11th Avenue

The Parks Department acquired a 7.4-acre lot in Hell's Kitchen in 1901 and officially opened DeWitt Clinton Park in 1905. The park was designed by landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. and featured a recreation / bathing pavilion (by the architectural firm of Barney & Chapman) overlooking the Hudson River, a gymnasium, a running track, playgrounds, and a children's farm garden. I assume that the 1911 bath house was separate from the 1905 pavilion that was probably built for river bathing. (historical sign).

Regardless, neither building seems to be extant, with the pavilion probably lost when the an acre and a half of the park was chopped off on the river side in 1927 for the elevated West Side Highway (also known as the Miller Highway) that permitted unimpeded truck access to the then-busy industrial waterfront. In a bit of karmic justice, the Miller Highway would meet an ignominious end in around fifty years later. The 20s era design proved to be quite inadequate for growing postwar traffic and with the collapse of a section of the highway on December 16, 1973 (ironically under the weight of a truck traveling to make repairs further south) the highway was closed and, ultimately, demolished. The elevated highway was replaced with an eight-lane at-grade road that was renamed for Joe DiMaggio in 1999.

There is a building across 52nd Street from the south side of the park that has an institutional and early 20th century quality, but the address is wrong. The park itself is a dreary shell of its former self due to overuse and undermaintenance.

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342 East 54th St

Opened: February 17, 1911
Cost: $317,300

The four-story neo-classical East 54th Street Public Baths and Gymnasium opened with 79 showers for men and 59 for women as well as a gymnasium, and rooftop playground. A 54 x 17 swimming pool was added in 1915. (historical sign)

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232 West 60th St

Opened: 1906
Cost: 139,300

This limestone and brick building, with terra cotta ornamentation, featured 49 showers for men, 20 showers and a tub for women and a 35' x 65' indoor swimming pool. The bathhouse served the predominantly Irish Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to the South, the primarily Negro San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north, and longshoremen who worked on the then-active west side docks.

The lot to the south on 59th Street was acquired for use as a playground and in 1912 became home to a two-story English Gothic style field house designed by architect Theodore E. Videto. In 1938, a tenement building to the east was demolished and replaced with an outdoor pool that opened in 1943. The field house is now Recreation Center 59 and the indoor pool serves the Municipal Lifeguard Training School. The outdoor pool has long been out of service, although there are long-standing plans to demolish it an replace it with an expansion of the recreation center.
(historical sign)

Early conflicts at the public bath between Irish and Negro patrons presaged later racial clashes in the same area that would be immortalized (albeit with different ethnic groups) in the musical and film West Side Story. Scenes in the film version of West Side Story were shot in the San Juan Hill neighborhood that had been condemned for the creation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex.

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523 East 76th

Opened: 1906
Cost: $115,844

This bath was built in John Jay Park, located in what was then Little Bohemia, a Czech and Hungarian neighborhood within Yorkville, a larger German neighborhood. The first parcel of land for the park was acquired by the City in 1902 by condemnation. The swimming complex was built by the WPA and opened in phases between 1940 and 1942. The outdoor pool opened in 1940 and, in 1941, the bathhouse was remodeled and reopened as a recreation center with an auditorium, gym, recreation room and changing facility, but, presumably, without extensive public bathing facilities. (historical sign).

Douglas Abdell's sculptures were installed on the west side of the park (Cherokee Place) in 1979 and the park and playground areas underwent extensive renovations in 1985 and 1995. The address of the bathhouse may have placed it in what is now the sculpture garden so there is the possibility that the 1906 bathhouse was another building on this site that has been demolished. However, the current park building would seem to be of appropriate vintage, albeit a bit small.

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243 East 109th

Opened: 1905
Cost: $129,953

The bath at this site was built to serve what was then one of New York's numerous "Little Italy" neighborhoods of Italian immigrants and was equipped with 122 showers, seven tubs, marble partitions and floors, and hot and cold filtered water. The building was presumably demolished in the early 1960s for the construction of P.S. 83, the Muñoz Rivera School. Muñoz Rivera was an early 20th century Puerto Rican politician most notable for getting the 1917 Jones Act passed which granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and created bicameral Puerto Rican legislature similar to the U.S. Congress.

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East 120th Street at Sylvan Place

(between Lexington and Third Avenues)

This is actually the site of a bath that was never built. The city acquired a small plot behind the Harlem Courthouse for a public bath in 1929. But the era of public baths had long passed and in the absence of formal activity, the plot became an informal sitting park. It became an official park in 1945, with Sylvan Place, a short connecting street to the West of the plot being closed off in the early 1980s and officially added to the park in 1992. The rather barren space was renamed the "East Harlem Art Park" and features "Growth" a 15-foot-high red sculpture by Jorge Rodriguez that was dedicated in 1985. The former Sylvan Place gives an attractive view of an entrance to the modernist PS 7, Samuel Stern School across the street (historical sign)

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111th St at 1st Avenue

Opened: 1905 (?)

Thomas Jefferson Park was originally planned and named in 1894, although the land was not purchased until 1897 and the park did not officially open until October 7, 1905. The original park design included two playgrounds, two gymnasiums, a public bath, comfort stations and a classical pavilion. A children's farm garden was added in 1911. Boccie courts and an outdoor pool were officially opened on June 27, 1936.

The pavilion and bathhouse structure supposedly stood on East River Drive and were vandalized to the point of unrecoverability by the 1970s. The pool and recreation center were extensively renovated in 1992 by architect Richard Dattner and the park was relandscaped in 1994. Presumably, the renovations cleared the remains of the bathhouse for expanded recreational area and if the current recreation center has no historical relationship to the old bathhouse, there seem to be no other vestiges of an earlier structure anywhere in the park.

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35 West 134th Street

A city web site lists construction on this building as beginning in 1907 and ending in 1925. Williams' book lists this bath as opening in the late 1920s, which would make it the last of the municipal buildings built with a significant public bath component. The public bath movement had essentially ended in 1915 and the anomalous construction of public baths in Harlem a decade later may be a testament to delays in social services and the persistence of social ills in this segregated community. The natatorium is particularly attractive with a magnificent skylight and elegant mosaic tiling around the pool. The site is currently known as the J. Rozier Hansborough Recreation Center and although I have been unable to find any web references to Hansborough, it can probably be assumed that he was a significant Harlem civic leader.

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138th St at 5th Avenue

The location of this Harlem public bath is listed in Williams' book only by this street corner. There is nothing there now to clearly indicate where this facility was. The intersection is just to the East of the 138th Street (Madison Avenue) bridge across the Harlem River. The northwest corner is a post office, which may be of appropriate vintage but does not bear any markings or structural characteristics that would distinguish it as a former bathhouse. The northeast corner is a brutalist 1970's era apartment complex, and the southwest corner is a 1990's era (?) apartment building. A large, old Department of Health building is couple of blocks south on 5th Avenue, but is at an inappropriate address. The southeast corner is Riverton Houses, an urban-renewal-era project that is probably the best candidate for the former bathhouse location.

Riverton Houses was a "Separate But Equal" complex built for Negro residents by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that was a companion to the all-white Stuyvesant Town complex simultaneously being built further downtown. The 1,232-unit development, which was built in 1947 and sold to a private partnership in 1976, has been the home of prominent African-Americans like former Mayor David Dinkins, former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander Jr. and Samuel Pierce Jr., the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (reference)

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