Historic beachfront bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park in Queens to undergo $50 million refresh

Riisian Revival

Historic beachfront bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park in Queens to undergo $50 million refresh

Entrance pavilion view of the Jacob Riis Park Bathhouse, a complex comprised of four connected brick structures dating back to 1932. (Tdorante10/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

While beach season is officially a wrap in New York City, sun-worshipping habitues of the Rockways have something special to look forward to come next summer.

As reported by several local outlets including 6sqft and ABC 7, the landmark bathhouse complex at Jacob Riis Park, a storied mile-long stretch of sand located on the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens within the Jamaica Bay Unit of the National Park Service (NPS)-managed Gateway National Recreation Area, will undergo a $50 million revamp and subsequently reopen in phases as a buzzy beachfront destination. Plans call for a multiple eateries including a rooftop restaurant, bars and lounges, retail spaces, a courtyard swimming pool, dedicated event areas, and even a 28-room boutique hotel. Historic preservation–specializing architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle, which previously completed a comprehensive master plan for the bathhouse in 2002, and developer CBSK are leading the charge on the project, which will reportedly begin with a full restoration of the brick bathhouse’s original Moorish/Byzantine facade.

CBSK partner Scott Shnay referred to the project in a statement as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that will “help return the bathhouse to its former glory and add modern restaurants and attractions to the historic Jacob Riis waterfront.”

courtyard area of a historic brick bathhouse
The bathhouse courtyard would be converted into a lounge-flanked pool area under the current renovation plans. (Tdorante10/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Debuting at the so-called “People’s Beach” in 1932, the Jacob Riis Park Bathhouse was for decades an epicenter of activity on the Rockaway Peninsula, eventually falling on hard times during the latter half of the 20th century when the beach fell out of favor. In the early 1970s, ownership of the 40,000-square-foot bathhouse, remodeled by the WPA in the art deco style in the late 1930s and famously anchored  by twin octagonal towers, was transferred to the NPS. Roughly a decade later in 1981, the Jacob Riis Park National Historic District, which includes the bathhouse as a contributing property, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1990s, the flailing bathhouse was completely shuttered, languishing in a state of disrepair after a major renovation plan kicked off only to be subsequently abandoned after $20 million was spent on asbestos removal and other activities.

In the years since, much ink has been spilled on the nearly century-old structure, specifically on the complex and costly potential for reviving it. In addition to suffering from years of neglect, the bathhouse was battered by 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, and then a year later, ravaged by Superstorm Sandy along with the rest of the Rockaway Peninsula. Since then, rehabilitation efforts have largely focused on resiliency—that is, breathing new life into the historic building while also ensuring that it stands strong against future storms.

Per 6sqft, the newly announced redevelopment plans have also been reviewed by the NPS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Office for Coastal Management to ensure that an ambitious (but historically sensitive) overhaul of the structure project doesn’t pose a threat to the local wildlife or sully the surrounding coastal habitat. The project has also been reviewed by the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

view of a busy beach in nyc
Pre-Sandy beach view of Jacob Riis Park and its historic bathhouse, including the art deco addition. (Padraic/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

“This project to revitalize and rejuvenate the Jacob Riis Bathhouse represents a giant step forward for the Rockaway Peninsula as it continues to recover from the battering it received from Hurricane Sandy a decade ago,” remarked Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. “By restoring the Jacob Riis Bathhouse to its glorious past, we are creating a brighter future for the Rockaways, its residents, and its many visitors.”

While the planned rebirth of the Jacob Riis Park Bathhouse is certainly reason for celebration, there’s also been ongoing cause for concern at another area of the 220-acre Jacob Riis Park that has long served as a safe haven for LGBTQ New Yorkers. As first reported last spring and making headlines again more recently including in a beautifully produced interactive piece for the New York Times, the city plans to raze the ruins of an abandoned tuberculous hospital fronting the Bay 1 section of the beach that shields the queer—and unofficially clothing-optional—section of the beach. The crumbling hospital site, owned by New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, would be replaced by a new park.

Backlash to the plan has been fierce, with many queer beachgoers worrying that they will lose a rare safe space when the blighted eyesore of a hospital is demolished.

“It has been a sanctuary for us. We just come here without planning and always find friends,” Brooklyn resident Casey Morrissey recently told NBC News. “We don’t have many spaces like these.”

AN will circle back with updates on both the rejuvenation of the Jacob Riis Park Bathhouse and the proposed demolition of the old Neponsit Beach Hospital as they are made available.