Seventy-five years ago this week Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia inaugurated Orchard Beach in the Bronx. The Summer of ’36 was the year Robert Moses opened a bevy of Parks Department projects funded through the WPA. This was the good Robert Moses of recent revisionism, not the bad power broker of yore.
Moses hired society architect Aymar Embury II to create a bathhouse pavilion. The grand colonnade was likely influenced by the Palais du Challiot in Paris, whose plans appeared in several trade journals of the day. Though the glazed terracotta accents have weathered well, the concrete developed alkali-silica reaction, a.k.a. “cement cancer,” rendering the building too unstable for public use. It’s unlikely that the building will survive. “The architecture is terrific, but it’s a public beach,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “If we can preserve both the architecture and the function that’s great, but it’s more important to preserve the function.”
For the beach itself, Moses didn’t want a pebbly shoreline native to the region. Instead he created a perfect white crescent, 400 feet wide and 1,400 feet long, filled with sand imported from the Rockaways and Sandy Hook. The sand was last replenished in 1964. In the intervening years large portions of the beach drifted into the Long Island Sound while officials debated on who should fund the $10 million sand replacement. This past spring more than 250,000 cubic yards of sand was pumped onto beach just in time for the anniversary.
Those who’d like a closer look at bathhouse can visit the photography exhibition "A Landmark Pavilion at Orchard Beach," which runs through October 16 at the City Island Historical Society and Nautical Museum. More info about the building can also be found on Lehman College Art Gallery website under Bronx Architecture.