Jackie Robinson Park and Pool - Photo #1

Photo: Ellington R. Williams, Warburg Realty.
Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City opened 8 August 1936 as Colonial Play Center, was renamed June 12, 1978, and was designated a New York City landmark April 10, 2007[17]. The park was conceived by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses but the design, construction, and funding came from Federal New Deal agencies. The park lies between Edgecombe Avenue (up the hill on the right) and Bradhurst Avenue (lower left), and between West 145th Street (upper left behind the trees) and West 155th Street. The gothic spires of the City College of New York are visible in the distance.

I spent much of the summer of 1967 in this area when I was a youth counsellor in an antipoverty program at a nearby public school that no longer exists. After "work" we would often take the kids to Bradhurst Park (as everybody called it then — the word "Colonial" grated on Harlem ears) to swim or play. Needless to say, I had no idea how this magnificent facility came to be. How would I? There were no signs, plaques, cornerstones, or markers; nobody taught it in school; it was just there.

The ten-block parcel was acquired by the City in 1894-99 and opened as Colonial Playground in 1911. It was completely reconceived in 1935-36 by WPA architects Aymar Embury II and Henry Ahrens, and WPA landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke, and totally rebuilt with TERA and WPA funds and labor, adding its massive medieval-fortress-like bathhouse and recreation center, a large swimming pool and a diving pool, an outdoor "granolithic" dance floor with bandshell, plus new playgrounds, game courts, and ball fields.

The park complex can be treated as Six distinct New Deal projects because each one opened at a different time and was announced separately to the public, often with a ceremony:

Opened Agency Streets Project [references] Notes
4 Apr 1936 TERA,WPA 152-153 St. Playground with wading pool [5] For older children
8 Aug 1936 WPA 146-147 St. Pool and bathhouse [1,2,6,7] Bathhouse was finished later
16 Oct 1936 WPA 150-152 St. Ball fields and game courts [3] Opened without announcement
27 Jul 1937 WPA 147-148 St. Bandshell and outdoor dance floor [8] Adult recreation
15 Oct 1937 WPA 148-150 St. Children's playground [9] Playground One Forty Nine
1936-37 TERA,WPA 145-155 St. The park itself Green areas, paths, infrastructure

It is often noted that Robert Moses' attitudes towards and treatment of nonwhite people and their neighborhoods was problematic; this topic is dealt with thoroughly in [12], [15], [19], and numerous other works. But racist or not, he chose to build this monumental complex for the people of Harlem, using WPA-paid Harlem residents for labor, and then hiring them to operate it once it was turned over to the Parks Department. Contrast with today when Harlem's Black population is rapidly being gentrified out of existence... and nobody in the hamstrung city government can lift a finger to save it. Today you are likely to walk down Malcolm X Boulevard or Frederick Douglass Boulevard without seeing a single Black face. That is the very definition of irony. Even Robert Moses understood that ordinary working people needed a place to live and raise their families... and a place to relax and enjoy themselves... even if they weren't white.

Bear in mind that Aymar Embury Jr., Moses' chief and most prolific architect (who is mentioned several times below), was not an employee of the Parks Department nor of Robert Moses. His actual title was Consulting Architect to the Department of Parks; he worked for and was paid by Federal New Deal agencies, as explained [here]. Ditto for Henry Ahrens and Gilmore Clarke.
  1. NYC Parks Department press release, 9 August 1935:
    The Department of Parks has determined the location and completed the development plan of a major recreational center in Harlem. For over a year the Department has been searching this section of the city for an area large enough to provide space for the active play and recreation which it is providing in other neighborhoods, and which Harlem lacks. No area large enough to accommodate all the units required and at a price the city could pay could be assembled. It was decided to convert Colonial Park from its present informal plan into a park for active play. Its location, between 145th and 155th Streets and between Edgecombe and Bradhurst Avenues, is ideal. ... The largest meadow in the park which extends from 150th to 152nd Streets will be devoted to field sports and other adult recreation. A third playground for larger children, which will include a wading pool, is located between 152nd and 153rd Streets. ... Construction will be started this summer with relief forces.
  2. Harlem Gets News of Big Play Centre, New York Times, 9 August 1935, p.36:
    The centre ... will contain playfields for adults and children, a large swimming pool, a recreation building and gymnasium and mall and music plaza. Announcement of the project, which will be built as a WPA job entirely with local Negro labor, was made in the park at one of the Park Department's bi-weekly block dances at 149th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. ... As the last crash of the "Blues" died away, the crowd surged forward and Arthur Thompson, leader of the thirteen-piece Colonial Dance Orchestra, a work relief band, introduced ... Robert Moses [who introduced] the Mayor [La Guardia]. Promising to speak briefly because "I know you would rather dance than listen to me," the Mayor said "Right here in this park we are going to present to the people of Harlem a most modern up-to-date recreation centre and playground ... Work will begin in a very few few weeks and we will employ local labor right here from Harlem." [He also announced a $7,500,000 Federal housing development nearby at at 149th Street and Seventh avenue.]
  3. NYC Parks Department press release, 12 August 1935:
    The Park Department has planned 110 playgrounds with relief funds furnished by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration and they will be constructed with relief forces supplied by the Works Progress Administration. Thirty-seven of these to be built with relief funds replace old makeshift and inadequate playground areas in centers of congested population with modern, fully equipped recreational centers and 73 are on new areas added to the system. ... The following is the program of the Department of Parks for the opening of these one hundred and ten playgrounds in the five boroughs: [long list, including, scheduled for April 1936] Colonial Park,Bradhurst & Edgcombe Aves., W.145 to 155th St.
  4. Baths to Cost $1,050,000. Two-Story Structure Planned for Site in Colonial Park, New York Times, 29 October 1935, p.37:
    ...according to plans filed for the Park Department yesterday by Aymar Embury 2nd, the architect.
  5. Eleven New Playgrounds Opened by City, New York Times, 5 April 1936, p.102:
    Eleven new playgrounds—nine in Manhattan, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn—were opened yesterday by the Department of Parks. The playgrounds were constructed entirely with WPA funds. [Eight Manhattan playgrounds listed...] The other playgrounds are at Colonial Park, 153rd Street and Bradhurst Avenue ... [others in the Bronx and Brooklyn are listed].
  6. NYC Parks Department press release, 7 August 1936:
    The new Colonial Swimming pool, the tenth of eleven swimming pools constructed by the Park Department with W.P.A. funds to be opened this summer, will be formally dedicated and opened to the public Saturday, August 8 that 8:30 P.M. It is located in Colonial Park at 146th Street and Bradhurst Avenue, in the Harlem section of Manhattan. ("W.P.A. funds" includes not just materials but also labor, including architects and engineers as well as electricians, plumbers, construction workers, etc.)
  7. 25,000 at Opening of Harlem Pool, New York Times, 9 August 1936, p.83:
    Commissioner Moses, in a brief address, asserted that the pool, which was constructed with PWA funds, was "built by the labor of people from this district and will be operated by people from this district." ["PWA" probably should have been "WPA"]
  8. 3 New Playgrounds to be Opened Today, New York Times, 16 October 1936, p.22:
    Three new playgrounds will be opened without ceremony by the Park Department at 3 P.M. today as part of the general program of the department ... The new centers are located at ... Bradhurst Avenue and West 152nd Street, in Colonial Park ... In Colonial Park there will be facilities for volley ball, paddle tennis, shuffle board and horseshoe pitching and a large area with two soft-ball diamonds.
  9. NYC Parks Department press release, 27 July 1937:
    The park department announces the completion of the brick and concrete band shell and granolithic outdoor dance floor at Colonial Park, Bradhurst Avenue and 147th Street in the Harlem section of Manhattan on Tuesday night July 27th. Mayor La Guardia. Park Commissioner Robert Moses and Bill Robinson, the radio and movie Star, will be present at 8:30 p.m. to officially open the area for the dancing which will be held every succeeding Tuesday night from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Bill Robinson will add to the entertainment tonight by giving an exhibition of his dancing.
  10. NYC Parks Department press release, 15 October 1937:
    ...the playground in Harlem ... will be opened promptly at 8:45. Prior to the arrival of the Mayor and the Park Commissioner, the children of the neighborhood will take part in a parade from 145th Street and Bradhurst Avenue which will be led by a fife and drum corp. Entertainment here will be featured with a program of songs and music by the Colonial hill-billies, an organization of Harlem playground children that won third place in the recent city-wide contest on the mall in Central Park. Members of the New York State Temporary Commission on Urban Colored Population have been especially invited to attend these opening exercises. The Colonial Park Playground has been planned for small children and is equipped with swings, see-saws, slides, jungle gyms, playhouses and sand tables. The permanent benches and trees placed in this new area forra a part of the general landscape scheme of this ten-block recreational park. Other units at this park already open to the public include the swimming pool and bath house, dance floor and band shell, and two additional playgrounds lying to the north of the one to be opened this evening.
  11. The Sports Parade (column), New York Age, 4 June 1938, p.8:
    The Colonial Park Swimming Pool at 146th street and Bradhurst avenue ... not only serves as a recreation center for a large part of upper Harlem but also supplies jobs to a score or more life guards, attendants, etc.
  12. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker - Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage Books (1974), pp.513-514.
  13. High Diving Pool in Harlem Transforms Into Splendid Playground, The Daily Plant, 22 December 2003, NYC Parks Department website (accessed 8 August 2018).
  14. Come On In: It's the Big Chill of '36, Kathryn Shattuck, New York Times, 14 August 2006, p.E1. About "Splash!", a 70th Anniversay Celebration of New York City's W.P.A. Pools at the Arsenal in Central Park:
    At a time when the city had not yet rebounded from the effects of the Depression, the pools would provide work to unemployed architects, draftsmen, engineers, laborers, and, after they opened, support staff like instructors, lifeguards and maintenance workers ... As imagined by the architect Aymar Embury II and his team, these palaces for the poor evoked architecture many New Yorkers weren't likely to have experienced ... Turrets and buttresses turned the Colonial Park Pool ... at West 146th Street and Bradhurst Avenue in Harlem, into a medieval castle.
  15. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, W.W. Norton & Co., New York (2007).
  16. Jackie Robinson (Colonial Park) Play Center, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, 10 April 2007, Designation List 390 LP-2238:
    The opening of the ... Colonial Park ... Play Center was attended by 25,000 people, jam-packed into the narrow site, and spilling out onto the streets. The 369th Regiment Band welcomed the public with a song, and was joined at the chorus by the enthusiastic crowd. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a pioneer and preeminent tap dancer, was also on hand to entertain the people. The completed ... Colonial Park ... Play center has been widely acclaimed since its opening. It was touted for being more eclectic than the other pools, with its "Romanesque-inspired details" and "bold cylindrical forms."
       The monumental two-story facade has always had a striking presence on Bradhurst Avenue, where, as noted in a 1986 Parks Department exhibition on the WPA-era pools, the "imposing medieval fortress... could easily be mistaken for an arsenal."
       Furthermore, of the eleven WPA-era pools, the ... Colonial Park ... Play Center is the only one to evoke so strongly the architecture of another era, while still incorporating elements of the popular Art Moderne style, employed at each of the remaining pool sites. Whether considered alone or together with the other WPA-era park improvements, including the dance floor terrace with its undulating brick walls, or the wading pool and comfort station which closely reference the curvilinear forms found at the main pool site, the ... Colonial Park ... Play Center complex was clearly a major achievement of the New Deal in New York City.
  17. Jackie Robinson (Colonial Park) Play Center Bath House Interior, Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 10, 2007, Designation List 390 LP-2239:
    In which the interior of the Play Center is designated a landmark for its: "...special character, special historical and aesthetic interest, and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City ... the original and creative use made of modest materials and forms, make it a distinguished, individual design; that the vast scale and elegant detailing of the lobby make it a particularly notable interior space; and that the complex, along with the other WPA-era pools, was a major accomplishment of engineering and architecture, and is recognized as being among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States."
  18. Jackie Robinson Pool Is Designated Landmark, New York Sun, 11 April 2007.
  19. Gutman, Marta, "Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol.67 No.4 (December 2008), pp.532-561.
  20. Parks Celebrates 75 Years Of Summer Swimming In New York City's WPA-era Pools, NYC Parks Department Press release, 8 August 2011:
    The WPA era represented a concerted effort to provide New Yorkers with access to safe, clean, and majestic places to swim ... The pool complexes are vivid reminders of the ambition and vision it took to improve the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers during an extremely difficult period for the City ... The project was financed by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), as part of a massive effort to alleviate adverse health conditions and provide safe recreation in predominantly working-class communities. ... Today, all of the pool complexes constructed that summer are designated New York City Landmarks.
  21. Jackie Robinson Park - History, NYC Parks Department website (accessed 5 August 2018).
  22. Film: A Better New York City (WPA, 1937), shows scenes of the construction of Colonial Pool and Park at 2:07.
  23. New historical marker acknowledging the WPA installed by Parks Department in March 2022.