Lore has it that Hog Island – a little spit of land off the coast of Far Rockaway that was said to resemble the back of a hog -- was washed away in the hurricane of 1893. But though this story is trotted out every time New York City is threatened (like now) by another hurricane, contemporaneous sources suggest a more gradual end.
J.B. Beers, New Map of Kings and Queens Counties, 1886
The beginning of Hog Island, no less than its demise, has been subject to hyperbole. According to a New York Times article which appeared on December 17th, 1895, “Hog Island rose from the ocean in a single night, thirty years ago,” i.e., in 1865. A more likely creation story is provided by Alfred H. Bellot, who writes in his History of the Rockaways that the island was “formed gradually by the ocean depositing sand on its westward sweep from Long Beach.”
However fast or slow it may have formed, at some point after the Civil War, the “island” – actually a peninsula also known as Far Rockaway Beach -- was deemed well-enough established to support several bathing houses and “two or three restaurants furnishing refreshments and entertainment” (History of the Rockaways, p. 94-95). An 1874 article in the New York Times about local “Holiday Resorts” described Hog Island as “a sandy island several miles in length” on which “all the surf-bathing grounds [of Rockaway Beach] are situated,” and reported that “the majority of the visitors to Far Rockaway spend almost all their time on the island, enjoying the cool ocean breezes to be found there, even in the most extreme heat.”
On the night of August 23, 1893, a hurricane now classified as Category 2 triggered 30-foot storm swells off of Coney Island, flooding lower Manhattan and uprooting trees in Central Park. Although the storm did considerable damage, it did not, as has since been reported, destroy the entire peninsula. As late as 1902, Hog Island was still operating as a resort, as the Brooklyn Eagle reported after yet another storm hit the area in April of that year:
The bathing beach, which is known to the residents as Hog Island, is a long, low and narrow sandbar which lies several hundred feet off shore, with the waters of the inlet flowing between it and the mainland. A long footbridge leads out to it, all of which is owned by [James] Caffrey. Storms in the past have done considerable damage to the property and often threatened to wipe Hog Island off the map. Through all these trials and losses, the owner, James Caffrey, has been undaunted and has rebuilt and improved the sand beach every year. Even yesterday he had a number of men at work saving what was left of his holdings, and he promises to have everything in ship shape again when the season opens.
The final demise of Hog Island is apparently undocumented, but it seems to have washed away with the tides sometime in the 1920’s.
When the Hotel Pennsylvania opened in 1916, it was the world’s largest hotel, a stately complement to the grand Pennsylvania Railroad Station across Seventh Avenue. Its guests enjoyed a rooftop restaurant, Turkish baths, and Roman decorative flourishes. Now, close to a century later, it merely lingers while the building’s owners make plans to replace it with a controversial skyscraper.
Hotel Pennsylvania, 1919. PR 042, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Record Collection
McKim, Mead and White, the firm that built the hotel, along with the original Penn Station, had a leading role in introducing Beaux-Arts architecture to American cities and towns. By the time it started work on the hotel, McKim, Mead and White had already made its mark throughout the country with buildings that gave the Gilded Age a classical and ornate setting.
Penn Station, however, which is considered by some to be the firm’s masterpiece, met its end in 1967. The fate of the Hotel Pennsylvania depends on how quickly its owner, Varvato Group, is able to finalize plans to build a 1,215 foot tall tower in its place.
Detail, Typical Terra Cotta Bays, Hotel Pennsylvania Working Drawing. PR 042, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Record Collection
Naturally, preservationists have argued against this proposed demolition, and while their efforts may ultimately be in vain, we can at least say that the nearly 2,000 architectural drawings for the building are safe and sound in the Library’s collection.
Detail, Bar Room, Hotel Pennsylvania Design Drawing. PR 042, McKim, Mead & White Architectural Record Collection
Starting in 2009 with a grant from the Save America’s Treasures program, the New-York Historical Society is in the midst of an extensive project to preserve these as well as an estimated 58,000 other McKim, Mead and White drawings, all relics of an architectural golden age.
It may come as a surprise that the so-called concrete jungle of New York City has no fewer than 54 outdoor pools maintained by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Astoria Park Pool. Geographic File, PR 020.
New Yorkers have been taking the plunge in the Big Apple since the late 1800s, when the state legislature passed a law mandating free bathhouses in cities with populations over 50,000. The state, along with then-Mayor William L. Strong, believed it was necessary to provide bathing facilities for families in overcrowded tenements, where sanitary issues were a major concern. Bath houses, the predecessor of the swimming pool, were initially used for cleansing and therapeutic purposes but became more geared towards recreation over the years.
Interior of Swimming Bath, Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1870. Geographic File, PR 020.
Along with bath houses, New York City also boasted “floating baths,” along both the East and Hudson Rivers. These wooden baths were filled with river water and secured by pontoons, boasting dressing rooms for men and women. However, these scenic watering holes were short-lived because of the increased concern of river pollution and the limited number of seasons they could be in use.
Floating Bathhouse, Battery Swimming Baths (1939). Geographic File, PR 020.
In the 1930s and 1940s, under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the Parks Department became the authority of bathhouses and in conjunction with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began a large scale project to create several grand bath houses and outdoor pool complexes. Each pool in the extensive project boasted cutting-edge techniques and were the epitome of architecture, design and cleanliness. The WPA pools functioned out of season as well, becoming venues for dancing, shuffleboard, ice skating and various other activities. Another major pool project happened in the 1970s with the construction of "vest-pocket “ or mini pools and Olympic-sized pools in order to answer the increasing need of more recreational facilities. Today many of the City’s original pools are still in operation and most have received a substantial face lift. Most residents tend not to realize these free oases that are literally in their own backyard. This summer pool season began on June 29th and will remain open through Labor Day.
Before Pools: The Old Swimming Hole, Foot of 50th Street and East River (1907). Geographic File, PR 020.