Notable New Deal Projects in New York City

Frank da Cruz, Bronx NY
Last update: Sun Jul 23 18:58:08 2017
This page was written in 2015 as a starting point for the Living New Deal NYC New Deal Map, which appeared in April 2017.
“What would be the 20 or 30 most significant New Deal Projects in New York City?”. Obviously a matter of taste and opinion, especially when there are so many to choose from — almost certainly more than 1000 (click here to see a list of over 500 from just the Parks Department). And by what criteria? Most famous? Most beautiful? Most used? Most ambitious? Most expensive? Most influential? Most typical of a certain style? Employed the most people? Is the list fair to all boroughs? Any selection is bound to be arbitrary, and furthermore is complicated by deliberate measures taken (especially by Robert Moses) to obscure the New Deal connections of many of them, which I have tried to untangle (e.g. for the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge). Here are my nominations:

The first group I researched, documented, and photographed myself (click each link):
Project and Link Borough Attraction
Central Park Manhattan The Jewel of Manhattan
Riverside Park Manhattan (and the 79th Street Boat Basin) Six miles of greenery and playgrounds along the Hudson River.
The Triborough Bridge Queens, Manhattan, Bronx One of the New Deal's largest Projects nationwide, connecting three of NYC's five boroughs, serving more than a million vehicles daily.
Orchard Beach Bronx The Bronx Riviera
Williams­bridge Oval Park Bronx 100% WPA; See history, prototypical WPA park, emblematic of hundreds of WPA neighborhood parks and playgrounds in NYC. But this one wasn't just "improved" by the WPA, was created, top to bottom. And the building is absolutely classic WPA style.
Bronx County Court­house Bronx Architecture, sculptures. The provenance of this one is a little iffy, but since an official NYC government page says it was constructed with New Deal public funds, I think it's OK. Plus it is a beautiful building.
The Bronx General Post Office Bronx Architecture, sculptures, murals, recently privatized but still intact (Later... sorry, no it's not, it has been completed gutted as of mid-2017).
Randall's Island Manhattan An oasis in the middle of New York City
SUNY Maritime College Bronx The USA's first nautical academy
DeWitt Clinton High School Murals Bronx A monumental WPA mural depicting the history of the world beneath the cosmos.
The second group I researched and documented on this page, just below these tables, but haven't photographed yet.
Project and Link Borough Attraction
Eleven WPA Swimming Pools All five boroughs 100% WPA, all in one year (1936)
La Guardia Airport Queens 100% WPA, NYC's first commercial airport
The third group I haven't photographed or researched or documented except to get minimal verification that each is, indeed, a New Deal project:
Project Borough New Deal verification
Manhattan Criminal Court­house (the Tombs) Manhattan Living New Deal
Federal Office Building Manhattan Living New Deal
Brooklyn College Brooklyn Short[1], p.280
Lincoln Tunnel Manhattan-NJ Short[1], p.546
Queens-Midtown Tunnel Manhattan-Queens Leighninger[2], p.86
Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel Manhattan-Brooklyn Encyclopedia of Bridges and Tunnels, Living New Deal.
East River (FDR) Drive Manhattan Leighninger[2], p.86
Henry Hudson Parkway Manhattan-Bronx Leighninger[2], p.86 (I also have some photos here).
8th Avenue IND Subway Line Manhattan Leighninger[2], p.86 Maybe all NYC's New Deal subway stops, lines, and tunnels should be consolidated into a single entry.
Canal Street Station Post Office Manhattan Living New Deal. One of the few New Deal NYC post offices in Moderne style. National Register Reference number 88002358. This would be my pick to stand for all the New Deal post offices in the City. Other links: A, B, C.
First Houses Manhattan Living New Deal. The first government-sponsored low-income housing development in the nation's history.
Franklin K. Lane High School Brooklyn Living New Deal. I think this is the most impressive surviving NYC New Deal school, even though (like almost every other big NYC school) it has now been chopped up into mini-"exellence-academies".
Belt Parkway Brooklyn-Queens Living New Deal
Staten Island Technical High School Staten Island Living New Deal
Staten Island Zoo Staten Island Living New Deal

References:

  1. Short, C.W., and R. Stanley Brown, Public Buildings, A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration, United States Govenment Printing Office, Washington (1939).
  2. Leighninger, Robert D. Jr., Long Range Public Investment, University of South Carolina Press (2007).

Central Park

Although Central Park was created in the 1850s from plans by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, many of the features we see there today are New Deal projects: References:
  1. Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Cornell University Press (1992) [website].
  2. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker - Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage Books (1974).
  3. The Report of the Department of Parks to August 1934: Memorandum on 1935 Budget Request of the Department of Parks, NYC Department of Parks archive. “Since January 19th of this of year the Department of Parks has spent $26,000,000.00 on new construction from Work Relief funds ... New construction projects include ... Complete new zoos will be finished in Central Park... The sheepfold in Central Park has been converted into a modern tavern ... The lower reservoir area in Central Park will be rebuilt and opened to the public...”
  4. Central Park Zoo at the NYC Parks Department website, gallery of pictures and some information (incorrectly identifies the WPA as the New Deal Agency that built the new Zoo in 1934; in fact it was the CWA).
  5. Moses, Robert, Memorandum on Organization of Work Relief Projects under the Supervision of the Department of Parks, NYC Parks Department press release, October 29, 1934.
  6. Williams, Mason B. City of Ambition, W.W. Norton & Company (2013): ”Using WPA labor, the Parks Department built ... Central Park's Conservatory Gardens...”.
  7. NYC Parks Department press releases of March 24, 1935 and December 30, 1936 (Heckscher Playground).
  8. NYC Parks Department press release, March 13, 1943 (Harlem Meer).
  9. Still Hunt History, NYC Parks Department website.
  10. WPA Does Its Bit to Make Central Park a Hodgepodge, Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1939, p.10.
  11. Aymar Embury, Wikepedia. He was the chief or consulting architect for the Central Park and Prospect Zoos, the Prospect Park Bandshell, the Corona Park Pool and Bathhouse (and three others), the New York Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair (now the Queens Museum of Art) and the Argentine Pavilion, the Triborough Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Little Hell Gate Bridge, Orchard Beach, Bryant Park, the Hofstra University campus, Jacob Riis Park, and nobody even knows how many more New Deal projects.
  12. Aymar Embury II Papers, Syracuse University.
  13. Central Park: Mother Goose, NYC Parks Department website: "In 1934, Roth was hired through the Works Progress Administration as the chief sculptor for Parks. In that year, the new Central Park Zoo opened, and Roth oversaw a team of artisans who carved the limestone animal reliefs that adorn the animal houses. The following year the same team worked on the sculptural embellishments for the Prospect Park Zoo, and in 1936 Roth completed the granite statues of figures from Alice in Wonderland which stand at the center of the Sophie Irene Loeb fountain in Central Park's James Michael Levin Playground. In the spring of 1937 Roth's Dancing Goat and Dancing Bear sculptures were placed in basins which flanked Kelly's Cafeteria at the western terrace of the Central Park Zoo, and now stand in niches near the north and south entrances to the zoo.
  14. Central Park: Mother Goose, NYC Parks Department website: "In 1934, Roth was hired through the Works Progress Administration as the chief sculptor for Parks. In that year, the new Central Park Zoo opened, and Roth oversaw a team of artisans who carved the limestone animal reliefs that adorn the animal houses. The following year the same team worked on the sculptural embellishments for the Prospect Park Zoo, and in 1936 Roth completed the granite statues of figures from Alice in Wonderland which stand at the center of the Sophie Irene Loeb fountain in Central Park's James Michael Levin Playground. In the spring of 1937 Roth's Dancing Goat and Dancing Bear sculptures were placed in basins which flanked Kelly's Cafeteria at the western terrace of the Central Park Zoo, and now stand in niches near the north and south entrances to the zoo.
  15. The Arsenal at the NYC Parks Department Website.
  16. Federal Writers' Project, The WPA Guide to New York City, Random House (1939).
  17. Robert Moses and the Modern Park System (1929-1965), timeline, NYC Parks Department website.
  18. Thomas Jefferson Play Center, Landmarks Preservation Commission, July 24, 2007 Designation List 394 LP-2236: ”When Moses took over the Parks Department, it was already employing 69,000 relief workers funded mainly by the federal Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA).”
  19. History of the Arsenal, New York City Parks Department website. ”Having served off and on as the borough park offices, the Arsenal underwent another complete renovation in 1934 as the first and only headquarters of a citywide unified Parks Department. From his command posts at the Arsenal and at Randall's Island, Commissioner Robert Moses set about directing an unprecedented expansion of the parks system and the modernization of New York City's public facilities. In 1935-36 the Arsenal lobby murals were painted under the direction of Allen Saalburg. Saalburg depicted a series of scenes depicting recreational activities, notable park structures, and flagship parks. The project was funded by the Federal Works Progress Administration. Also at this time, a new entryway was designed for the front of the Arsenal, including military drums over the doorway and cast-iron musket replicas as supports for the banisters.”
  20. The 1934 Zoo at cpzbook.com/.

Riverside and Fort Washington Parks

Riverside Park Construction
Riverside Park Construction 1934. Photo: NYC Parks Department Archive. Click to enlarge.
Prior to the New Deal, the New York Central Railroad ran along the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, not only cutting residents off from the river, but also spewing coal smoke and soot into the residential areas. A project was launched in 1929 to bury the railroad tracks under parkland but it never got off the ground due to lack of funding, and by 1934 what we know as Riverside Park today was a "wasteland ..." stretching from 72nd Street to 181st Street ... "a vast low-lying mass of dirt of and mud ... unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront; in the whole six miles, there were exactly three bridges on which the tracks could be crossed, and they let only to private boating clubs ... [a] stench [hung] over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses ... carload after carload of cattle and pigs..."[1, pp. 65-67]  Plus "fifty-two shacks comprising the veterans' camp between 72nd and 79th Street ... [and] eighty-three other shacks along Riverside Drive on the Hudson River ... [plus] a reinforced coal hopper at the foot of 96th Street... [plus] old docks [plus] eleven shacks built around the piling tinder [at] the dock at 96th Street ... these wharf dwellers are literally clinging to the underpinnings of the rotting dock structure"[2].

Riverside Park Construction
West Side Improvement 1937. Photo: NYC Parks Department Archive. Click to enlarge.
In 1934 Robert Moses launched the West Side Improvement Project to create from this a mess a 5½-mile-long park, an express highway, and two boat basins. He obtained funding from “many sources ... Governor Lehman approved a loan of grade-crossing-elimination money to the New York Central. Federal, state, and City grade-crossing moneys, City street and park funds raised by assessment, railroad funds, money obtained through the sale of bonds of a municipal authority, Federal and state highway money and relief funds were also included.”[3] Moses is (as always) deliberately vague about the funding, and doesn't even mention the labor. But this was a massive work project and Moses commanded an army of as many as 80,000 relief workers during this period: if they didn't build it, who did?

Robert Caro, as usual, to the rescue [1,pp.526-540]:  Moses calculated that he had to find $109 million for the project, and Caro recounts how he did it; it's the kind of feat only Moses could pull off and Caro's pages are worth a read if you want to make your head spin. But as far as New Deal alphabet soup is concerned, Moses characterized the 79th Street Boat Basin as a "grade crossing elimination" and received $1,7660,000 for the materials from a PWA fund designated for that purpose, and then since he had the materials covered, the CWA gave him $3,000,000 to pay for labor, and then on the strength of that another $20,000,000 for labor to build the rest of Riverside Park, because the Henry Hudson Parkway was in it and Moses told them it was a "park access road". Or maybe it was $30,000,000, it's hard to tell but who's counting.

Today Riverside and Fort Washington Parks are an essential fixture of Manhattan's West Side. They include not only parkland, but a mall overlooking the Hudson River; baseball, football, and soccer fields, playgrounds, sprinklers, wading pools, running tracks, volleyball courts, tennis courts, bicycle paths, skate parks, and boat basins. It's really one big long park from 72nd Street to 181st Street, but there is an invisible boundary at 155th Street with Riverside Park to the south and Fort Washington Park to the north (where the Dominican population of Washington Heights stages massive cookout parties every weekend during the summer).

References:

  1. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker - Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage Books (1974).
  2. NYC Parks Dept press release of April 27, 1934.
  3. Moses, Robert, Public Works, McGraw Hill (1970), p.183-188.
  4. NYC Parks Dept press release archive for July-December 1934: numerous documents regarding the Columbia University Yacht Club in Riverside Park, which Moses demolished.
  5. The Columbia Yacht Club (gallery), Tours by Gary at blogspot.com.
  6. NYC Parks Dept press release of July 31, 1934, "West Side Improvement", the first phase of the construction of Riverside Park, which states that after the retaining walls for the railroad are built, "it will be possible to proceed with the landscaping work wilth relief labor."
  7. NYC Parks Dept press release of April 27, 1934, announcing commencement of work on the extension of Riverside Park along the west side of the New York Central Railroad tracks as part of the West Side Improvement Project using relief labor.
  8. NYC Parks Dept press release of October 11, 1937, announcing the opening of the West Side Improvement in Riverside and Fort Washington Parks, a $24,340,000 project.
  9. NYC Parks Dept press release of March 2, 1940, announcing the opening of the 79th Street Boat Basin.
  10. Riverside Park Construction 1934-37 (gallery), New York City Department of Records at nycma.lunaimaging.com.
  11. Klein, Milton M., The Empire State: A History of New York, Cornell University Press (2005). "...and [Moses] strung together federal and state grants for New York State's largest public work, the $205 million West Side Improvement which extended Riverside Park over the New York Central Tracks and built the Henry Hudson Parkway to connect with the Saw Mill River Parkway." (Obviously there were cost overruns after his original $109 million estimate.)
  12. New York City Parks Department press release, July 15, 1941, Hudson River overlook at 149-150 Street "which was built by the Works Projects Administration".

WPA Swimming Pools

Eleven enormous public swimming pools with magnificent full-service bathhouses opened in 1936, and their 80th anniversary is in July-August 2016. These were 100% WPA projects, soup to nuts, all new and original, paid for by a $10,000,000 WPA grant. With innovations such as filtered, treated, temperature-controlled recirculating water, underwater floodlights and above-deck illumination, showers, and sanitary foot baths, these pools set the standard for decades to come, and they were an extremely welcome addition the urban landscape at a time when hardly anybody had air conditioning. Furthermore, free diving and swimming lessons were given in each pool. Together the new pools had a capacity of about 50,000 people. In the off-season, they served as skating rinks or game courts, and the bathhouses as gymnasiums. The project was headed by Aymar Embury, the chief architect of the NYC Parks Department, paid by the New Deal (the PWA at first and then other agencies). Embury also designed four of the pools personally: Astoria, Colonial, Crotona, Sunset. The Astoria pool was the site of the 1936 Olympics Trials for the US swimming and diving teams.

Date Borough Original name Location or new name
24 Jun 1936 Manhattan Hamilton Fish Swimming Pool E. Houston St and Avenue C
24 Jun 1936 Manhattan Thomas Jefferson Swimming Pool East 111th Street and First Avenue
24 Jun 1936 Brooklyn Red Hook Pool Bay Street, Henry and Clinton Streets
1 Jul 1936 Queens Astoria Swimming Pool (see gallery) Hoyt and Ditmars Avenues
5 Jul 1936 Richmond Tompkinsville Swimming Pool Lyons Pool
13 Jul 1936 Manhattan Highbridge Swimming Pool in Highbridge Park 173rd St & Amsterdam Ave
19 Jul 1936 Brooklyn Sunset Swimming Pool in Sunset Park 7th Ave & 41-44rd St
23 Jul 1936 Bronx Crotona Park Swimming Pool (see gallery) Crotona Park
30 Jul 1936 Brooklyn McCarren Park Swimming Pool in Greenpoint Lorimer and Bayard Streets
5 Aug 1936 Brooklyn Betsy Head Swimming Pool in Brownsville Dumont Ave & Boyland St
7 Aug 1936 Manhattan Colonial Swimming Pool, Bradhurst Park, Harlem Jackie Robinson Pool

References:

  1. New York City Parks Department Press Release Archive for 1936 (the dates in the table above are links to specific press releases).
  2. Gutman, Marta, Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City, City College of the City University of New York, JSAH 67:4, December 2008.
  3. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker - Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vintage Books (1974), pp. 456-457, 512-513.
  4. Commission Grants Landmark Status to Three More Parks Department Swimming Pools, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission press release, July 24, 2007.
  5. Lowry, Richard, Astoria Park Pool and Play Center, August 2012, at docomo-us.org.
  6. Aymar Embury, Wikipedia.
  7. Parks' Swimming Pools (section WPA-Era Pools), NYC Parks Department website.
  8. Astoria Park: Astoria Pool, NYC Parks Department website.
  9. 10 Play Centers: Testimony before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Designation Hearing, April 3, 1990. “Any discussion of the WPA pools has to begin by noting the sheer scale of the undertaking-not one but eleven public pools, each of them enormous and each not merely a pool but an entire complex of buildings and public spaces. For such a program there was no precedent anywhere in the country. Moses' idea, which emerged during the height of the Depression, was both socially and technologically innovative. Using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding, Parks Commissioner Moses was able to secure $10 million for the pool complexes. To keep costs down, they were set in existing parkland. To complete this enormous design and construction project in a remarkably short period of time, Moses recruited hundreds of professionals — architects, landscape architects, engineers, urban planners, and artists — from the relief roles. Begun in 1934, the play centers were completed in 1936.”
  10. Betsy Head Play Center, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Designation List 405 LP-2240.
  11. Crotona Play Center Bath House Interior Center, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Designation List 393 LP-2233.
  12. Highbridge Play Center, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Designation List 395 LP-2237.
  13. Thomas Jefferson Play Center, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, July 24, 2007 Designation List 394 LP-2236.
  14. Shattuck, Kathryn, Big Chill of '36: Show Celebrates Giant Depression-Era Pools That Cool, New York Times, 14 August 2006.
  15. Aronson, Michael, Once, New York dared to be great: 75 years ago, the city opened 11 giant pools in one summer, New York Daily News, August 14, 2011.

La Guardia Airport and the Marine Air Terminal

Marine Air Terminal La Guardia Airport was York City's first commercial airport and when it opened on December 2, 1939, the nation's most modern commercial aviation complex. It was a 100% WPA project and one of its largest ever  [1,pp.2,439-442].

From the Federal Writers' Project, WPA Guide to New York City, p.567 (written shortly before opening day):

NORTH BEACH AIRPORT. Grand Central Parkway and Ninety-fourth Street, scheduled for opening in the summer of 1939, is New York's second municipal airport -- Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn is the first -- and the most important land- and seaplane terminal in the East. Situated on a 432-acre tract projecting into the East River between Bowery and Flushing Bays, the field is only twenty minutes ride, by way of Grand Central Parkway and Triborough Bridge, from mid-town Manhattan.

La Guardia Airport The seaplane division is designed to accommodate regular transatlantic airplane travel and will be used by Pan American Airways, Air France Transatlantique, Imperial Airways, Royal Dutch, and Deutsche Lufthansa. Its facilities will eventually include two hangars holding twelve to fourteen planes; a marine traffic terminal connecting with the hangars by tunnel; an administration building containing waiting and baggage rooms, and offices for navigation, flight control, health, customs, and immigration; and a platform ramp on Flushing Bay for landing passengers.

The landplane field will be used as the eastern terminus for the planes of the Transcontinental and Western, the American, the United, and the Eastern air lines, replacing Newark Airport in this respect. Its facilities will comprise four concrete runways measuring 4,688, 4,168, 3,900, and 3,532 feet, unobstructed runway approaches of several hundred feet, and an administration building flanked by six hangars.

The cost of the airport is estimated at $22,000,000, of which 70 per cent will be borne by WPA. Work was begun early in 1938.

La Guardia Airport The "landplane field" is what we now call La Guardia (or LaGuardia) Airport, the seaplane division is what we now call Marine Air Terminal. They were a single project at the time, although now they are considered sort of separate. For example, if you take a taxi you have to say either La Guardia or Marine Air Terminal; they have different exits on the Grand Central Parkway.

Mason Williams, in City of Ambition (2013), writes:

Despite its relatively light use of capital, the WPA made a considerable contribution to the city's economic development — above all in the construction of La Guardia Airport, which connected New York not simply to the metropolitan area and to the surrounding regions but to other world cities ... Roosevelt gave his full support to the project ... eventually the cost would rise to $40 million, of which the WPA contributed $27 million ... and New York became ... one of the world's air traffic centers.
From Edward Lawson, ”WP Airports”, Flying Magazine, Vol.16, No.4, April 1940 [read the whole article here as long as the link lasts]:
Believe it or not ... WPA workers have built at least 160 brand new airports since 1934, extended or improved at least 500 others and set up field lighting standards and boundary lights by the thousands ... When the Depression came along, the need for larger airports was already apparent. But nothing was done about it and, as years went by and the number of scheduled airlines increased, it became pretty clear that unless the Government helped to develop ground facilities, aviation as a whole would be seriously retarded. So the WPA stepped in — where both fools and angels feared to tread — and did a job in four years that othewise might have required from 14 to 24 ... Every airport touched by WPA's miracle-working shovel leaners is publicly owned and will be available should a national emergency arise ... To build New York's tremendous new LaGuardia Airport they transported 14,000,000 cubic yards of fill across Long Island Sound by means of trucks which traveled across a temporary bridge span at the rate rate of one every nine seconds. They increased a landing surface, originally only 100 acres in area, five times by extending it into Flushing Bay. They built four asphalt runways for landplanes, a vast seaplane base for clipper ships, two administration buildings and seven hangars. Constructed under a constant fire fire of criticism, in adverse weather part of the time, with some actual sabotaging and always under the lash of necessity to get it finished in a hurry, this mammoth field already has been adjudged by the pilots [of] American Air Lines and Transcontinental and Western Air — who use it daily — as one of the safest in the United states ... [It] became the WPA's biggest and most outstanding project.
LaGuardia Flight Mural As of Spring 1939 the project employed more than 20,000 workers[1,p.31]. The Marine Air Terminal contains the largest WPA mural of all time, called Flight, completed in 1942. It was completely painted over by the Port Authority of NY and NJ in the 1950s during the Red Scare, but was restored in 1980 and in 1995 the building was declared a historic landmark[4]. In the XXI Century, LaGuardia Airport has been the subject of much dirision and ridicule, and on July 27, 2015, Governor Cuomo announced it would be torn down and replaced by a whole new airport. The main buildings all date from the 1980s and 90s. “The Marine Air Terminal [The building itself] is a designated New York City landmark so it seems unlikely that it will literally be torn down.”[5]

Other references:

  1. Report on Progress of the WPA Program, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, June 30, 1940, pp.29-31.
  2. Taylor, Nick, American Made, Bantam (2008).
  3. LaGuardia Airport's Mural Has a Secret Communist Message, Business Insider, Dec 1, 2010.
  4. LaGuardia Airport, Wikipedia (accessed on 18 July 2015).
  5. $4 Billion Plan To Completely Rebuild LaGuardia Includes A Ferry Terminal, The Gothamist, July 27, 2015.