She Covers the Waterfront

by Paul Hond
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These baths, Buttenwieser learned, were actually seagoing public swimming pools that had been built for the city’s tenement poor, with slatted bottoms that allowed the pools to fill with river water. Inspired, Buttenwieser wrote an op-ed and sent it to the New York Times, proposing the idea be revisited (with clean water, of course), given the lack of public pools citywide. “I thought, ‘Let’s bring them back,’” she recalls. The Times ran the piece on Memorial Day 1980, and for the next 20 years, at community and waterfront meetings, Buttenwieser talked about the floating pools. And talked. Mayor Koch offered her a garbage barge that would cost $1 million to rejigger, but before she raised a single dollar, the boat sank. And so in 2000, Buttenwieser took matters into her own hands.

What followed was a textbook-worthy case of a Big Idea — ambitious, expensive, and improbable — making headway in rough seas (literally: the barge that was eventually purchased was being renovated in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, causing a five-month delay), until finally, majestically, it enters port.

In her class at Columbia, called “Architecture, Planning, and Preservation: New York,” Buttenwieser uses the story to illustrate how things work. First, to solicit funds, you must establish a not-for-profit (the Neptune Foundation); then you have to raise the money, make yourself an expert in an esoteric subject (decommissioned river barges), hire an architect, obtain permits, confront frightful cost overruns, and generally swim in an ocean of red tape.

Worth it? Buttenwieser’s voice tightens as she describes seeing the barge, christened The Floating Pool Lady, her gift to the city, arriving in New York harbor in the autumn of 2006. “It was,” she says, “like it was coming home.”

The seven-lane public pool, which berthed at Brooklyn Heights in the summer of 2007, drew more than 50,000 people that year. Next summer it will begin its third season docked off Barretto Point Park, in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.

But if reading about the floating baths gave Buttenwieser her big idea, it’s tempting to imagine that the general concept was wafting in her consciousness for some time.

In an August 1965 issue of Life magazine, in the “Ideas in Houses” section, there is a photo essay called “A Fortress by the Sea.” The piece highlights an imposing structure built on a spine of rock on Long Island Sound. Designed by the architect Ulrich Franzen for the Buttenwieser family, the house has three three-story brick towers and sits right on the sapphire-colored water.

The first photo shows a rectangular swimming pool lying at the foot of one of the towers. Above the pool’s far edge is a protective railing. Beyond the railing, the crystal blue bay. It appears, from that angle, that the pool is floating on the sea.

Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor is itself a formidable piece of architecture, and Buttenwieser took special pleasure in its design and construction. In seven big, eventful chapters illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings, Buttenwieser revives a potent little world, exposed on all sides to the winds of war, peace, and politics.

One of the book’s heroes is Elihu Root, “a highly regarded New York City attorney who was well connected socially and politically.” Root, who would later become secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt and win the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize, was appointed secretary of war by President William McKinley in 1899, and became the master builder of Governors Island. He oversaw the island’s expansion and beautification, handpicked the architectural firm (McKim, Mead & White, which had recently drawn up the master plan for Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus), and exercised his “political savvy and his uncanny ability to implement an agenda for Governors Island,” as Buttenwieser writes. “Probably only George Washington, who had ordered construction for the first fort, had exerted the same impact.”

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