Three Hills

New York City’s Floating Pool Lady Will Re-Open the Last Saturday in June

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Land-based outdoor public swimming pools have existed in New York City since the 1930s. However, there is a need for more outdoor pools, particularly in recreationally underserved communities. But land on which to build such pools is scarce and expensive. With 560 miles of waterfront, what better way to increase this inventory than to build floating pools. The efforts to build a prototype floating pool are documented in The Floating Pool Lady, A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront.

Floating Baths

Floating pools or baths were actually in existence in the northern cities of the United States beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. These were similar to giant houseboats with an enormous hole in the center filled with polluted river water. For contemporary sanitary and progressive reformers, the baths were a means to improve the health, decorum, and morality of the mostly immigrant poor and working-class population. They were also a means to protect middle-and upper-class New Yorkers from perceived threats of disease and crime accompanying the arrival of immigrants. In other words, initially, the baths were a place for tenement dwellers to get clean.

Having discovered an archive of material comprising the history of the baths, and desirous of opening the city’s waterfront to recreational use, the author, an individual citizen, in 1999 decided to purchase a barge, construct a floating pool within it and donate the facility to the NYC Parks Department for an opening in summer 2000. But the process to do this was a choppy one. Figuring that it would be an easy sell, the author became an evangelist for floating pools and received enthusiastic responses from the powers that be, but there was reluctance to act.


With architects in hand to design dressing rooms and other non-naval facilities, in 2000 the author took the project to Hoboken, New Jersey. Problem: the presumed opening date had already passed; missing were financial projections, a not-for-profit foundation to accept donations, and a naval architect to find and plan the retrofit of a barge. The Mayor eventually supported opening a floating pool on the Hoboken waterfront for the summer of 2002. Events seemed to move ahead. But that was not to be. The Mayor stood for reelection and lost. The author figuratively moved back across the Hudson to begin phase two: the seven-year process of donating a floating pool to the City of New York.

Where Will the Pool Go?

As we have seen, New York City’s waterfront is vast. Four out of its five boroughs are islands but few residents in early 2000 could reach their shores. Many elements prohibited a quick selection of a place for the Floating Pool Lady to berth. Access was an important locational element. Users required pedestrian or transportation access from the upland. The pool needed access to electricity, fresh water, and sewage disposal. Residents of a waterfront community, with many needs, including a ferry landing, had to want, and fight for, a floating pool.

These themes—the long time it takes from conception to implementation of an individual citizen’s idea; the lack of receptiveness on the part of agents from the city and state to a perceived “outsider”; the labyrinth of jurisdictions and parties whose approval must be secured; the importance of having a dedicated, loyal team and personal contacts; and the number of built-in unknowns, particularly for innovative projects—all reveal both the pleasant and unpleasant process of the sausage-making process of public engagement that you will find in reading The Floating Pool Lady, A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront.

*Featured photo: Central Park South View of Water. Credit: Jose Oh.

The Floating Pool Lady
Cover Image of The Floating Pool Lady.
Read more about this book.

Ann L. Buttenwieser is an urban planner and urban historian. She has taught at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Governors Island and Manhattan Water-Bound.

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