Hipsters, grab your swim trunks, because the new McCarren Park Pool is officially on its way. Today, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved plans from the Parks Department to restore and renovate the pool to its Moses-era glory, along with new amenities called for by the community. After a three-year reign as North Brooklyn’s premier concert venue, and three decades of disuse before that, the pool should be back to its intended use by 2011.
The plan, designed by Rogers Marvel Architects, calls for a thorough restoration of the original bathhouse, completed in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, as well as reconfigured wading and diving pools, a “beach” platform that can accommodate an ice-skating rink, and new year-round recreational and community spaces within. “You have to respect the existing architecture and open space and at the same time create a 21st-century facility,” Jonathan Marvel told AN after the commission voted 7-0 in favor of the project.
Given the pool’s high profile in the Williamsburg community, both new and old, as well as its widespread coverage in the press, the hearing was sparsely attended, drawing only minor criticism from the few preservationists who spoke, all of them in favor but for this minor ahistorical detail or that. “We are sorry to see the Parks Department adopt an agenda that fills so much of the formerly open space with concessions, administrative paraphernalia, and alien attractions,” Christabel Gough, secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, told the commission. “It turns a sophisticated design of the 1930s into kitsch with a beach.” One speaker lamented that one walkway would be five feet deeper than its counterpart, disrupting the pool’s symmetry.
Marvel countered that, like all successful restorations, the needs of past and present had to be balanced, a sentiment the commission strongly agreed with. “For the resources the city is dedicating to this, we’re going to need year-round use from this facility,” commissioner Elizabeth Ryan said, responding to attacks on the skating rink. Commissioner Pablo Vengoechea said that the architect’s attention to detail was homage enough. “I think the work is certainly monumental, the amount of work being done to restore this,” he said.
Some feared that the decision to place the swimmers’ changing pavilions outside the bathhouse might diminish that monumentality, however. The architects wanted to get them closer to the water and free up interior space for new uses, as well as to create shaded space on the promenade. Though preservationists argued that they distracted from the building’s scale, the commission disagreed. “I was worried they would block the view of the robust building behind them,” Fred Bland, the newest commissioner, said. “But I find they do not cover up too much. The transparency and lacy feel of the design is modern, deferential, and appropriate.”
Marvel said the architects had the good fortune of a nearly complete set of drawings on file at the Parks Department. This is how the decision was made to keep a spray park on the northern side of the pool separate, as drawings and photographs suggested that had always been the case, despite the seeming asymmetry it brought to the overall design. The drawings also allowed for carefully matching new windows and doors that have long been destroyed and boarded up. The designers even hope to peel back decades of graffiti to reveal the original rare bricks, though paint will be used if necessary. “There is a kind of ruggedness of the McCarren complex, and we love that ruggedness but we also want to make it as beautiful as possible,” Marvel said.
Another dispute arose during testimony when some speakers brought up a proposal for a glassed-in, rooftop restaurant, not wholly unlike the architect’s proposal for a hotel atop the Battery Maritime Building. Though the plans had been shown last week to the community and preservationists, a Parks Department official told the commission that the restaurant was not presented today because it would come at a second phase, with a separate review, if it was pursued at all.
As for concerts, Stephanie Thayer, the executive director of the local nonprofit Open Space Alliance, which advocates for park space in the neighborhood, said she remains optimistic for concerts to continue in the pool during the off season—between swimming and skating—as well as during the summer at one of the numerous parks developing along the waterfront. Thayer was also recently hired by the Parks Department, as its North Brooklyn administrator, which could help the new venue become a reality, whether in the pool or elsewhere.
“On a personal level,” Thayer told AN, “I’d like to see it closer to an industrial zone. Three years ago, this area was industrial, but now it’s beginning to bump up against some other spaces. I obviously want it to happen, but the problem is finding the right space. It’s out there. We just have to find it.”