Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
This park is named for Betsy Head (1851-1907), a British immigrant who became a wealthy widow. Mrs. Head left the City of New York a bequest of $190,000 to build recreational facilities. She stipulated in her will that half of her residual estate should be given to sixteen charities, many of which were dedicated to the welfare of children, and the other half should be donated to the City of New York for the “purchase and improvement of grounds for the purposes of health and recreation.” The land for Betsy Head Playground was paid for by the property owners of Brownsville at a cost of $250,000. The facilities of the playground were bought by the funds bequeathed by Mrs. Head.
Architect Henry B. Herts designed the new playground. It was built in 1915 by the Public Recreation Commission and turned over to the Parks Department later that year. The park included a rest pavilion, wading pool, playground, school farm garden, bath building, swimming pool, field house, running track, and tennis courts. It was one of the most complete and popular facilities of its time, embodying all the ideas current in recreation. A model of the playground was displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and, according to the 1915 Parks Department Annual Report, “contributed greatly toward securing first prize for the New York City Parks exhibit.”
In 1936 the park was redesigned extensively and the Olympic-sized swimming pool was constructed. Architect John Matthews Hatton’s pool house exemplified the sleek Art Moderne style with liberal use of glass block and a parasol roof. One of eleven pools built by the Works Progress Administration during the summer of 1936, the pool is a relic of the New Deal era.
The construction project, organized by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, and funded by the federal government, was part of a citywide effort to erect recreational facilities in under-served neighborhoods. The pools represented the forefront of design and technology. They attracted aspiring athletes and neighborhood children. The influence of the pools extended through entire communities, changing the way millions of New Yorkers spent their leisure time. Although damaged by fire soon after it opened, the pool was rebuilt in 1939.
Betsy Head Playground underwent a $5.2 million rehabilitation in 1983. The work included the reconstruction of the pool, ballfields, running track, and field event facilities. Also, new landscaping, benches, water fountains, an outdoor comfort station, curbing, trees, and shrubs contributed to the park. In 2001 a new running track was installed at the site and today the multi-use facility endures as a model of park design.
- Betsy Head Park
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