Bronx New Deal - Photo #88 - Orchard Beach

Orchard Beach, Pelham Bay, Bronx, New York, “The Bronx Riviera”, created by the federal Work Projects Administration (WPA)[4] from a plan[1] developed in 1934 by NYC Parks Department architects, landscape architects, and engineers paid by the federal Civil Works Admininistration (CWA)[2].
Orchard Beach Before and After[7]
(Click to enlarge)
It was a massive project that joined several islands to the mainland and involved construction of access roads, parking lots, parkland, nature trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, an athletic field, tennis courts, two boat harbors, a huge bathhouse with locker rooms and restaurants and shops and a dance floor, a plaza, a terrazo, a boardwalk, and the beach itself [1], not to mention cleaning up the water[3].

The photo above, taken July 29, 2014, shows only a small part of the beach and half of the bathhouse. Maximize your browser and click on the Enlarge button to see it full size. See the following pages for more views taken the same day.

Orchard Beach opened on July 25th, 1936; here is an excerpt from the NYC Parks Department press release[4]:

Although the entire development, a WPA project, has not been completed, the facilities to be opened include a crescent-shaped white sand beach approximately 200 feet wide at high tide, and 2500 feet long facing the Sound; a beach walk and concrete seawall, which forms the backbone of the beach; two temporary parking fields that will accommodate 3500 cars and a section of the two-story bath house having 1568 lockers for men and 540 lockers and 192 dressing rooms for women. A new four-lane traffic road approximately two miles long, running from Eastern Boulevard to the bath house, eliminates the former narrow circuitous route from Eastern Boulevard to City Island. Bus and taxi service will be in operation from the bath house to the Pelham Bay station of the Lexington Avenue line of the Interborough Rapid Transit.

When completed, Orchard Beach will compare favorably with Jones Beach. Over 115 acres of land will have been added to Pelham Bay Park by the addition of between 3,500,000 to 4,000,000 cubic yards of fill and the new beach, approximately one mile long, will not occupy any land that was formerly part of the park.

There will be a brick pavillion with limestone trim and colonnades of simplified Greek architecture, with lockers and dressing room facilities for over 5400 persons, a cafeteria, rest rooms and a [doggie?] terrace on the second floor facing the Sound; a Mall 250 feet wide and 1400 feet long, with benches and trees along the edges, connecting the bath house with a large lagoon for small boating. This lake will be provided with a tidal dam to keep the water a permanent level.

In the Rodman Neck section there will be a parking space for 7000 cars; athletic fields with nine baseball diamonds, seven football fields, thirty-two tennis courts, a completely equipped children's play area and a field house with dressing room, lockers, toilet and shower facilities. A small boat harbor will be provided. The Split Rock and Pelham Bay golf Courses and Golf House, about one mile distant from the beach, were opened this spring.

The entire development is fitted into a landscape scheme taking full advantage of the natural rocky hillside and weeded areas.

In December 1938 [5], Robert Moses commented:
In Pelham Bay Park in The Bronx a new Orchard Beach has risen from the haphazard ruins of the Pelham Bay Naval Training Station, famed during the World War. Five million yards of fill topped on the Sound side by one million yards of clean, white sand, has created this new development on a site where formerly open water divided Hunter Island from Rodman's Neck. The mile-long beach and boardwalk, the bathhouse for 6500 patrons and the parking space for 8000 cars have made this area so popular that the Park Department has, on occasion, been forced to close it because of the excessive crowds attracted by its facilities.
According to Lehman College historians, “At one point up to 4,000 relief workers, bused in from the Pelham Bay subway station, were kept employed on the Orchard Beach facilities during the Great Depression. This was the largest Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) project in New York City at the time ... When Orchard Beach opened on July 25, 1936 it was only one-third completed and there was only a temporary beach and Bathhouse. Most of the present Bathhouse, its colonnade plus the Promenade and parking lots, were still under construction. By the following year, the facilities were completed and the city planned additional expansions.”[6].

Renovation Announced

Orchard Beach plan
Renovation Plan [8]
Once constructed, the magnificent concrete bathhouse with its "towering columns, sweeping terraces, and a unique crescent shape" was allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was covered with black mold and was closed for public safety. Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. announced in January 2019 that after a five-year campaign he was able to secure $60 million in funding to restore it to its former glory. The Parks Department has contracted with the NYC Economic Development Corporation to "spruce up" the pavilion, upgrade the electrical system, and build new restrooms, an elevator, and ramps. The concession stands and restaurant will be reopened and there will be performance spaces, gardens, food trucks, and seasonal markets, and bus service will be available year-round. "Díaz [who grew up splashing around on the shore of the waterfront with his brothers] hopes the completed structure will include space that highlights the history of the pavilion and the beach itself, which is the city's only man-made stretch of sand. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized the pavilion and the promenade as a landmark in 2006, touting its Modern Classical design."[8]

Nowhere in any of the publicity or announcements is the New Deal mentioned. However, it is worth noting that this massive project, that will create thousands of temporary jobs and hundreds of permanent ones once the renovation is complete, is a direct result of the the original creation in 1934-1937 of Orchard Beach and its pavilion and other facilities by the federal Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration New Deal agencies, as described in these pages, and an excellent example of how public investment grows the economy for ordinary working people and improves their lives at the same time — both then and now.

  1. NYC Parks Dept press release, May 15, 1934
  2. NYC Parks Dept press release, October 29, 1934
  3. Documents dated May 22, 1935, and June 1, 1935, in the NYC Parks Department archive for 1935.
  4. NYC Parks Dept press release, July 23, 1936.
  5. Robert Moses, "Progress in the Park Department: 1934-1938", December 1938.
  6. Lehman College Art Gallery: Orchard Beach.
  7. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker, Vintage Books (1975), p.366.
  8. Spivak, Caroline, "Orchard Beach reno will make it 'best beach in the state,' says Bronx BP", Curbed New York, 9 January 2019.
  9. Orchard Beach Bathhouse and Promenade, Landmarks Preservation Commission, June 20, 2006, Designation List 377 LP-2197: "The Orchard Beach Bathhouse and Promenade, which since 1936 has served as the major waterfront recreation complex for Bronx residents, is an outstanding example of the federally-funded public works projects executed during the Great Depression of the 1930s ... Orchard Beach was constructed in 1934-37 during the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Park Department Commissioner Robert Moses with funds obtained largely from the Works Progress Administration."
The New Deal in NYC 1932-1943 | Frank da Cruz |