Within a New York City Housing Authority complex, a historic building remains inaccessible to the public and the surrounding community. The Baruch Baths, located at 326 Delancey Street is a large, neoclassical building, a 115-year-old landmark along the easternmost section of Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. The building pays tribute to two generations of New Yorkers whose work, directly and indirectly, helped bring health and recreation amenities to the masses. More than a century ago, new immigrants arriving on the Lower East Side were forced into congested tenement districts where overcrowding threatened their health and welfare, and epidemics of cholera and typhoid raged because of a lack of clean water and basic sanitation facilities.
Dr. Simon Baruch (1840-1921), who served as a surgeon during the Civil War, witnessed firsthand the debilitating effects of unhealthy water and lack of sanitation. In 1889 Dr Baruch voiced the first plea for public bathhouses, and in 1901 New York City completed and opened this building. Then known as Rivington Street Public Baths, the building featured indoor and outdoor bathing pools, as well as showers, tubs and changing rooms.
Dr. Simon Baruch Public Bath on Rivington Street circa 1917. Image via Museum of the City of New York.
In 1939, Bernard Baruch (1870-1965), son of Dr. Simon Baruch and noted financier, donated the surrounding land to the city, and the NYC Parks Department assumed jurisdiction, renovating the bathhouse with better recreational facilities and constructing Baruch Playground on an adjacent site. Since the 1950s urban renewal era, when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) preserved Baruch Baths while building Manhattan’s largest public housing complex, New York City Parks Department has administered this property for NYCHA, but in 1975, when a long fiscal crisis made the facility too expensive for the cash-strapped city to operate, the recreation center at Baruch Baths was closed.
As you can see from the photos, at present this once-proud public amenity stands as an all-too-vivid reminder of under-investment in New York City’s most marginalized communities. With support from the City Council and other agencies, the bathhouse could be brought back to productive life, perhaps being incorporated into the more than $1.5 billion that’s being invested in post-Sandy resiliency projects in the immediate vicinity of this long-neglected landmark. This is one of the properties that was testified about at the recent City Hall hearing about NYC Parks properties currently closed to the public.