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Jones Beach at 90: A seaside castle for the public lives on

Crowds entering the beach from the central mall

Crowds entering the beach from the central mall at Jones Beach on July 17. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Jones Beach State Park, designed as a grand seaside castle resort for ordinary folk, opened 90 years ago Sunday — forever changing Long Island and igniting many a love affair with the sea and sand.

Known for its gracious Beaux Arts architecture, 2-mile boardwalk, and 6½-mile white sand beach, the park is what historians call the master planner Robert Moses’ finest creation.

Expressing many a birthday celebrant’s top wish, Doug Bicknese, 70, of Bayville, who's been going to Jones Beach since he was 4, said simply: “May it last another 90 years.”

Long Island State Parks Commission chairman Bryan Erwin said: “Whether it’s because you’ve had a certain favorite field, a certain first concert or favorite concert at the amphitheater, or had a special ice cream with your grandparents, I want every Long Islander to continue the Jones Beach story.”

A seaside destination 

About 8.5 million visitors last year swam, sunbathed, biked, walked or played games — both traditional, such as shuffleboard, or modern, such as the splash pad — at Jones Beach.

Were it a national park, it would be the fifth most visited.

Its popularity, size and the way its striking architecture, layout, scenery and the parkways leading to it all are integrated are among the qualities that make it unique in the nation, experts say.

The parkways Moses built and landscaped also, so both the journey and the destination would delight city-dwelling beachgoers, made the Island’s suburbs possible, historians say. Without them, those communities might have relied much more heavily on rails than cars.  

Located about 35 miles east of midtown Manhattan, Jones Beach is a paean to the early 20th century progressive movement that embraced health, housing and labor reforms, along with ambitious public projects. Recreation, especially the outdoors, was seen as a way to counter social ills, from disease to liquor to dance halls, that arose as industrialization and immigration propelled people to cities.

Until it opened, public beaches either mirrored Coney Island, with its amusement rides and raffish reputation, or simply offered shacks for changing into bathing suits, historians say.  

In Jones Beach, Moses gave beachgoers the same monumental architecture previously reserved for buildings of great civic significance, town halls, courthouses and the like.

A nod to history

The park has undergone sweeping renovations to revive its original grandeur: the restoration of mosaics, tiles and Art Deco signs, the reopening of the Marine Dining Room with its original soaring wooden beams, and the overhaul of the West Bathhouse and Field 6 facilities. Even the new 2018 Boardwalk Café salutes designs Moses selected.

More modern elements have been added: a splash pad, games from soccer to cornhole, and an adventure park and zip line. A walking-biking path opened at the West End, a newly designated preserve that can never be developed.  

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently raised the budget for Jones Beach upgrades to $100 million from $65 million. Officials have not revealed how the money will be spent, but one possible undertaking is the East Bathhouse and its beloved pool, closed since 2009 budget cuts.  

The funds are part of Cuomo’s $1 billion program for all state parks to make up for years of punishing underfunding.

The park today

At times, modernizers have met with resistance from traditionalists. 

Some of the 1960s and 1970s renovations were loathed, including the Boardwalk Café, designed in the fortresslike “brutalist” style, and the lowered ceiling and the opening of a Friendly’s restaurant in the Marine Dining Room.

More recently, the zip line and a nature-energy center — scheduled to open next spring — caused friction. Nine Long Islanders in June sued the Long Island Power Authority — which is paying half its $18 million cost — and other agencies, saying the additions illegally inject commercial marketing into the West End and violates conservation laws. The parks department has declined to comment.

In 2005, the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places — a designation that guarantees its preservation but constrains future plans. 

Though additions to the site are not barred, “It requires that the historic character be taken into account in planning projects,” said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Still, George Gorman, regional director of state parks, said there is always an interest in keeping the park relevant for new generations.

“We have to make sure we do the rebirth of Jones Beach — and we do it right — so it will be enjoyed in the next 90 years as it was in the last 90 years,” he said. “All of our activities are being researched as to what the park visitor wants — and we are upgrading them.”

To zip line critics, Gorman says: “When they see the little kids enjoying it, when they see all the excitement, I think they are going to agree with us, it was a good addition to Jones Beach.”

Erwin, the Long Island state parks commission chair, said: “I’d say Jones Beach has always evolved,” noting the zip line stands where other games were once played, from archery to softball.

Of the preserve and trails, Wayne Horsley, former regional director of Long Island state parks, noted that Moses was a hiking enthusiast. “So I think he would be tickled pink at what we’re doing.”

And those original attractions — sun, sea and sand — are undiminished, officials say. “We will have the boardwalk, you still have the beautiful views of the ocean, so you’ll still have everything you always wanted,” Gorman said.

Said Tammy McLoughlin, 53, of Merrick, a lifeguard for 19 years: “It’s pristine, it’s beautiful, it’s magnificent.”

With Jasmine Fernandez

Countless obstacles

None of the park’s success looked likely at the dawn of creation for what the New York Herald Tribune called “A gigantic adventure in recreational socialism.”

Some feared Moses planned a Coney Island-style resort, which led the Town of Hempstead to reject his first 1925 plan, according to “A History of the Long Island State Parks” by Chester R. Blakelock, executive secretary, Long Island State Park Commission.

Moses proved persuasive. One year later, voters approved a scaled down park named for the Irish privateer and whaler, Major Thomas Jones.

Oyster Bay, Babylon and Hempstead later conveyed land — after lengthy court battles. Work began in December 1926 by marking where the landmark water tower — echoing the bell tower at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice — would stand.

Dredging Zachs Bay, which Blakelock called “a maze of shoals and bars,” created the bay that embraces the amphitheater. Its sand raised the barrier island’s height to about 14 feet.

The plan was severely underfunded, there were strikes, the causeway contractor went belly up, and Moses borrowed $20,000 from his mother to finish it, Blakelock says.

The dredging cost hundreds of baymen their livelihood and dozens of cottagers were driven out. By not linking Jones Beach to the railroad and building parkway overpasses too low for buses, Moses purposely reserved it for the car-owning middle classes, locking out the poor and minorities, wrote Robert Caro in “The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”

A sandstorm ruined opening day, attended by Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his predecessor, Alfred E. Smith. “The critics who said ‘it couldn’t be done’ had a grand holiday,” Blacklock quotes the Long Island State Park Commission counsel as saying.

Background aesthetics

Zach’s Bay: Named for “a worthy citizen of Seaford, Zachariah James by name, who with his good wife, Mary, had a pavilion on the High Hill section of the beach at the time when theirs was the only building there. It is said that this old-timer was one of the homeliest who ever drew the breath of life and that his wife was a beautiful as he was homely. Furthermore, she was reputed to be able to sell a catboat through the inlet along against wind and tide, and with trolling lines out, to catch bluefish at the same time,” Birdsall Jackson wrote in his 1934 “Stories of Old Long Island.”

Design: The layout exemplifies the formal Beaux Arts style with a focus on symmetry and harmony. The linear beach, an unusual shape for a park, is organized around the Venetian-inspired water tower, set off by the rectangular Central Mall and the East and West Bathhouses on either side.

Buildings: Art Deco elements were woven into the design of the original buildings. As with the Chrysler Building, streamlined and geometric patterns are striking. At Jones Beach, one example is the base of the water tower, with its “trim in a range of characteristic geometric shapes,” says the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Nautical and Moorish touches also appear.

Parkways: Modeled after thoroughfares, including the Bronx River Parkway — but leading to a park — they were part of the recreational experience. “It was like having a film that revealed, frame by frame, the scenery that brought you through nature, manufactured by design, brought you to Jones Beach,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.

Too often shortchanged: Without subtracting from Robert Moses’ tremendous contributions in first imagining and then creating the park, the team that brought it life was led by Earle Andrews, chief architect and engineer, Clarence C. Coombs, who designed the landscape and parkways, Herbert Magoon, who designed vital buildings — the water tower and West Bathhouse, and Arthur Howland, general manager, according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

And five other Long Island state parks Moses built also turn 90 this year: East Islip’s Heckscher State Park, Montauk’s Hither Hills State Park and Montauk Point State Park, Orient Beach State Park, and Kings Parks’ Sunken Meadow, says the state parks department.

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