Keeping Up Jones

An iconic Robert Moses-designed park on Long Island gets a resilient rethinking.

By Jane Margolies

I’m standing on the boardwalk at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh, New York, with Faye Harwell, FASLA, a codirector of Rhodeside & Harwell.  Our backs to the Atlantic, we look out over a flat expanse that used to be covered by shuffleboard, ping-pong, and tennis courts. Now it’s a mountain of broken-up concrete. By next summer, this will be a rolling naturalistic setting, dotted with a rock-climbing wall, zip line, splash pool, and, yes, a couple of shuffleboard courts, too. It will be the most visible of the many changes taking place at Jones Beach in a $65 million project undertaken by the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and guided by a report from Harwell’s firm.

Changes are needed. Built by the urban planning czar Robert Moses in 1929 as part of an unprecedented network of parkways and public parks, Jones Beach once was a six-and-a-half-mile-long marvel along the south shore of Long Island. Moses had used dredged sand to connect several small barrier islands, on which he and the landscape architect Clarence Coombs laid out the park using a formal Beaux-Arts plan. Revolving around a water tower and a pedestrian mall, the 2,400-acre park featured fanciful art deco buildings and manicured lawns bordered by clipped hedges. In keeping with Moses’s legendary attention to detail, nautical touches abounded, including drinking fountains shaped like buoys. Park employees wore sailor suits. The park was an enormous success.

A diagram shows how floodwater could flow over the terrain, through game surfaces, and into an interdunal swale. Image courtesy of Studio RHLA.

But by 2013 annual visitation had dropped from 14 million, at its peak, to six million. One of the buildings had burned down. Play areas were deteriorating and prone to flooding. And original lighting and benches had been lost, replaced by a mishmash of designs. Capping it all off was the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

The state’s highest priority was preservation of the site’s historic fabric, parks commissioner Rose Harvey says. But she and her agency acknowledged that Jones Beach needed to adapt—offering recreation and food options in sync with how people play and eat today, and preparing for a future of rising seas and more frequent storms. When the state, in partnership with the Open Space Institute, an organization dedicated to protecting significant landscapes, issued an RFP for a consultant to prepare a revitalization plan for Jones Beach, Harwell, a New York native who’d grown up coming here with her family, vowed to win it. “To us, it wasn’t ‘Jones Beach State Park,’” she says. “It was just ‘the beach.’”

The resulting plan, released in spring 2014, focuses on the core of the park, the most actively used area along the mile-long boardwalk. Beyer Blinder Belle is designing a new East Mall building to replace the original that burned. The construction of the building will restore balance to the central portion of the boardwalk. The updated play area will flank it.

Harwell and I poked our heads inside the West Bathhouse, where restoration is nearly complete. “Crispy,” she said as we inspected the close-cut grass in front of the building. Rhodeside & Harwell’s New York offshoot, Studio RHLA, is currently completing designs for parterres here and elsewhere. Thomas Rainer, ASLA, a principal at the firm, wants to retain the historic framework but employ looser shrub borders and replace “frilly” annuals with mosaics of grasses and perennials—all able to withstand flooding and thrive without the armies of laborers that were at Moses’s disposal but don’t exist today.

The proposed sweeps of Indiangrass, pink muhly, goldenrods, and asters promise to add soft coloring and lushness to the landscape, just as the reinvented games area will introduce more adventurous types of recreation. Seeing how the old and new merge as the plan is realized will merit a return visit.

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