Aymar Embury II — Unsung Hero of the New York City New Deal

Frank da Cruz
Bronx NY, November 2019
Last updated: 16 March 2021
See photo gallery of Embury New Deal projects   See table of Embury New Deal projects

Aymar Embury II
Aymar Embury II (1880-1966) Photo:  Wikimedia Commons.
Compared to most other parts of the country, New York City enjoys a rich New Deal legacy... and an even more remarkable ignorance of it beyond some vague notion that "master builder" Robert Moses did it all himself, seemingly with his own bare hands. In reality, we owe NYC's construction boom during the Great Depression to President Roosevelt and the New Deal agencies he created and that paid for the materials, labor, engineering, and architure. And to the close friendship of FDR and NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who obtained so much federal money for New York City that it was sometimes called the 49th state[1] — the only non-state entity that had its own WPA branch. Throughout the Depression WPA* crews were all over the City constructing bridges, highways, tunnels, subways, public schools, clinics, hospitals, campuses, marinas, boathouses, parks, playgrounds, zoos, athletic fields, golf courses, recreation centers, swimming pools, beaches, bathhouses, bleachers, band shells, housing projects, fire houses, police stations, comfort stations, and on and on.

When you think of architects who left their mark on New York City, who comes to mind? McKim, Mead, and White? I.M. Pei? Anybody else? Probably not!  

Triborough Bridge
Triborough Bridge
Meet Aymar Embury II. He was the New York City Parks Department's chief architect from 1934 until the end of the Great Depression, and well beyond. In this capacity, he is said to have designed or supervised the design of over six hundred public projects in New York City[2]. He was a well-heeled, prosperous, and highly-regarded upper-crust architect who for some 20 years had specialized in elegant homes for the wealthy. He certainly did not take the Parks job for the money. More likely he took it on because at a time when unemployment in New York City exceeded 30%, he would be designing projects that would employ tens of thousands of jobless workers and once built, many of these projects would improve the lives of struggling families. Anyway, he liked his new Parks Department job better than his other ones because "it's such a madhouse"[3].

Orchard Beach
Orchard Beach Pavilion
In some ways Embury's public-spirited New Deal work diminished his own architectural legacy. Quite aside from the fact that he was now designing structures for ordinary people rather than estates in the Hamptons, there was the WPA's quite proper insistence on the least expensive construction materials — cheap concrete and bricks — to be able to hire the most workers. This was fine with Embury; in fact, he became a veritable master of the Aesthetics of Concrete[4]. The downside was that such gems as his Orchard Beach pavilion would decay and turn ugly over time. Yet it is a tribute to the value and impact of his New Deal creations that at least twenty of them have achieved landmark status and now, after decades of shameful neglect, many of them are being restored to their original glory.

Colonial Pool
Colonial Pool and Play Center
I have no special knowledge of Embury and I know of no biography of him although he certainly deserves one. (What would Robert Moses have been without him?)  He must have worked long hard days years on end to bring so many public works to fruition, with little recompense and not much recognition either since most NYC New Deal structures are not credited by the Parks Department to any particular architect, nor indeed to the very New Deal funding and labor that made them possible. No matter, Embury's work speaks for itself; it ranges from the humble and workaday (comfort stations, drinking fountains, ticket booths) to the monumental and magnificent:

His New Deal projects also include major renovations to some well-known buildings:

Split Rock Golf Clubhouse
Split Rock Golf Clubhouse
I am not aware of any published list of Embury's New Deal projects, so I have been working on assembling one myself. At this writing (25 November 2019) I have identified 232 of them. In most cases I can't say to what extent he designed a project personally, or collaborated with other architects on it, or simply supervised; short of digging through mountains of boxes at the Embury archive in Syracuse, we can only rely on official records that name him as architect of a given New Deal project. The current list of these projects is here:
http://kermitproject.org/newdeal/embury/
And a gallery of some of his most striking projects here:
http://kermitproject.org/newdeal/embury/gallery/
The list is useful in identifying New York City New Deal projects in cases where no other New Deal connection is recorded. By virtue of Embury being on a federal New Deal payroll, any particular project can be classified as a New Deal project if Embury is officially credited as its architect in his Parks Department capacity during 1934-1943.

Delacorte Clock
Delacorte Clock
Lincoln Tunnel
Lincoln Tunnel
Eighty years hence, countless people traverse Embury's bridges and highways and tunnels, and visit his beaches and pools and parks and zoos and other creations, without having the faintest notion of how these marvels came to be. In 1965 Embury's son, Edward Coe Embury, paid tribute to his father's New Deal career by designing the marvellous Delacorte Clock[5] for the Central Park Zoo that his Dad had designed in 1934.

In 1995, a New York Times article[6] reported how Embury's descendents were taken by the Parks Department on a bus tour of some of his most famous and enduring New Deal public works. The article concludes: "During the years of the Federal Works Projects Administration construction, while he served as chief architect for Robert Moses, he did as much as anyone to bind the city together and to help it dig its way out of the Depression."

* For simplicity, "WPA" is used in this article as a shorthand for any New Deal agency such as FERA, CWA, PWA, or WPA itself, that paid for public works.
References:
  1. Mason Williams, City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York, W.W. Norton (2013), p.191.
  2. Aymar Embury II Papers, Syracuse University, Libraries Special Collections Research Center. Home of Embury's papers and one of dozens of reputable sources for the 600 number.
  3. "Architect", Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, 7 July 1934, pp.12-13.
  4. Aymar Embury II, The Aesthetics of Concrete, Pencil Points, May 1938, pp.267-279.
  5. Delacorte Clock, NYC Parks Department.
  6. A Family's Ancestor Was a City's Architect, New York Times, 22 July 1995, Section 1, p.23.
  7. The New Deal in New York City 1933-1943.
  8. Aymar Embury II, Wikipedia (accessed 4 December 2020). In addition to a brief summary of his NYC New Deal work, the article notes that he served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in World War I and designed the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.
  9. Bill Case, Architect of the Sandhills, PineStraw Magazine, 14 September 2016. Includes some early photos of Embury, and 3/4 of the way down includes about eight paragraphs on Embury's New Deal work. Russell J. Whitehead, Some Work of Aymar Embury II in the Sand Hills of North Carolina, The Architectural Record, v.55, no.6, June 1934, pp.505-568.