Neighborhoods Parks and Recreation

Nostalgia for Astoria Pool, an early Robert Moses project with a high diving, Olympic-sized history

Astoria Pool is the largest venue for swimmers in New York, outside of the Hudson and East Rivers and, of course, the ocean.

Its location in Astoria Park is certainly theatrical, parallel with the river and in sight of two spectacular bridges (the Robert F. Kennedy and the Hell Gate) that sail over to Randall’s Island.

Mermaidens: Five sisters in bathing suits pose on steps of Astoria Pool, circa 1938. Courtesy the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives

For a public pool, its so big (330 feet long, with a supposed capacity of 3,000 people) that it might be more comfortable in a theme park.

Riding the Wave

The pool, the park, one of the bridges (the RFK, aka the Triborough) and the roads you probably used to get to thee places were all 1930s projects overseen by New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

But the real fuel behind the creation of Astoria Pool was the Works Progress Administration, a federal agency that infused billions of dollars into local communities during the Great Depression.

The money came just as Moses (above, in a swimsuit, at Jones Beach) was ascending into his various governmental roles in city and state government. The result was some of his most earnest and arguably most effective projects.

Perhaps his legacy might not be as hotly debated today had he stopped with his greatest hits of the decade: the Triborough, the parkways and the many miles of parkland scattered throughout the city.

And of course the swimming pools, eleven in total, built during the 1930s.

Dipping A Toe Into Swimming Pools

They were of special note as a culmination of the modern public facility, using modern design and new technology to create places of recreation for regular New Yorkers.

The idea of municipal pools wasn’t new — Philadelphia had them as early as 1890s, and New York had plenty of public baths and even floating baths  — but standards of decency had changed by the 1920s.

Women could cavort with men, as could different social classes. (And occasionally people of different races, although many of Moses’ own pools were guilty of segregation.)

Astoria Pool, with its subdued Art Deco design, was the grand model for all the new pools in the other boroughs. And it was certainly the most popular, from the moment it opened in July 1936.

It became a daily destination during the summer for neighborhood children.

“In 1936, I was eight years old,” recalled New York Yankee superstar Whitey Ford. “You could stand by the pool on a hot summer day –along with a couple thousand neighborhood kids in the main pool and maybe another hundred in the diving pool — look up, and see quite a sight. On the right was Hell’s Gate Bridge….and on your left, was the brand new Triboro Bridge heading towards the horizon.”

But Moses wasn’t just concerned with public accommodation. He had different intentions for this pool, reflected in the semi-circle of bleachers and that spectacular diving platform stretching like a plant over a deeper half-moon pool.

The Astoria Pool was meant to create swimming superstars.

The Diving Board and the Butterflies

Two days after its opening, on July 4, 1936, Astoria Pool hosted the U.S. Olympic trials in swimming and diving. From these events, victors went straight over to the Games, hosted that year in Berlin.

And they weren’t the only athletes tested that month in a New York WPA project.

Across the water, at Randall’s Island, Olympic track-and-field trials were hosted at Downing Stadium, producing the man who would become the most famous Olympian of the ’36 games — Jesse Owens, winner of four golds. [For more information, check out the podcast on Randall’s Island and the 1936 Olympic trials.]

Two massive Olympic torches stood astride the pool as competitors fought for a spot on the Olympic team.

Events at the Astoria Pool in July 1936 produced several winners, including gold medal swimmers Jack Medica and Adolph Keifer and a slate of athletes that went on win ten of twelve medals in men’s and women’s platform and springboard diving.

(Interestingly, the other two medalists were Germans. And both their medals were bronze, yet another result that must have angered Adolf Hitler.)

Olympics trials returned to Astoria Pool in 1952, and again in 1964, producing athletes that again nearly swept the diving events in the Tokyo games.

Swimmer Don Schollander went on to win 4 golds that year, the most of any athlete in 1964 and the most medals won by an American athlete since Jesse Owens.

But, as it would turn out, the biggest swimming celebrities fostered from the Astoria Pool were neighborhood boys.


Imagine being a kid in Astoria, Queens, in the early 1940s, living next to a swimming pool that had helped produce the world’s greatest swimmers!

A group of local swimming enthusiasts looked at Astoria Pool’s extended diving platform and saw a opportunity to entertain, forming an athletic-comedy group called the Aqua-Zanies.

Garbed in matching stripped ensembles, the teenagers performed wacky acrobatic stunts from off the platform — darting, twirling and sometimes bellyflopping into the water below.

They soon became ‘America’ leading water comedians‘, performing throughout New York and even going on an international tour in the early 1950s. Several Aqua-Zanies went onto more legitimate swimming careers.

And certainly these effortless performance have inspired hundreds of others to leap from the Astoria diving platform with equal attempts at gravity-defying levity.

Although the swimming pool has remained a important part of the community even to this day, that diving platform, weathering decades of elemental abuse, was shut down in the 1970s and has become something of a beloved ruin.

In June 2006 it was officially designated a New York City landmark. And the pool is open for swimming again. Let your aqua-zany dreams soar!

Thanks to the Parks Department for use of the images above. (Diving platform photo courtesy NYC Dept of Records)

44 replies on “Nostalgia for Astoria Pool, an early Robert Moses project with a high diving, Olympic-sized history”

The lining was torn in the 80s an apathetic politicians who kacked vision left it in a state of disrepair. Mayor Bloomberg was planning to restore it ginally if we got the federal funds if we won the bid for histing sumner Olympics. Sadly we lost the bid and Deblssio did not have the vision nor the business sense ti enter us into the bidding. The money is our there, just needs ro stop being mis appropriated.

Maintenance. The lining was torn in 1980 and the city had budget crisis. The city decided to sacrifice most of the diving pools laying off mandatory lifeguards and not wanting to spend money on diving pool maintenance and boards. Fearmongering the public with suggestiins of luability was used to sway the public into not reacting to the liss very popular sport for the working class masses.

As a Queens native, my girlfriends and I often frequented the Astoria pool. I remember fearfully jumping off the high diving platform, as a dare. I did it only once, but I will never forget the thrill it gave me as well as the respect I learned for our Olympic Platform divers.
Bring back our beloved pool with all its glory.

A petition to restore the diving pool in Astoria Park has about 500 handwritten signatures is online now on and facebook. The call tovrestote us growing louder especially since Mayor de Blasio generously allocated $30 million to restore the parks treasures. Residents and visitors to the pool want to take the unpopular ampitheater plans off the table and reopen the extraordinary diving pool in Astoria Park.

Great idea to restore the diving pool. In the late 60’s and early 70s i went to the pool with my father and sisters and jumped off the second level of the diving pool dozens of times each visit. Great times and memories. Please bring back those great times.

A petition to restore the diving pool in Astoria Park has about 500 handwritten signatures is online now on and facebook. The call to restote us growing louder especially since Mayor de Blasio generously allocated $30 million to restore the parks treasures. Residents and visitors to the pool want to take the unpopular ampitheater plans off the table and reopen the extraordinary diving pool in Astoria Park.

Awesome I was a young lad in the 50s who thought
the pool was an oasis and still remembers
all the fun. Especially the days they opened
and allowed diving at the olympic pool. Great
place park included and views were priceless.
What a place to live and grow up truly great.

Great place when you were a kid .10 cents for kids to get in.i lived on 24 St and 40 ave.My grandmother would give me a dollar.30 cent for carfare 15 one way .60 cents for a soda and hamburger lol.What great time we used to have .Sometimes we would get a bunch of kidz to go and i mean we were like 10 year olds .

Yes those were the good times at astoria park pool. Don’t forget the square pizza slices we also ate sitting up top the cement steps over looking the pool. Those slices were delicious.

Can you please tell me if in the 1960’s there were lockers at the pool? Or was it a basket you put your stuff in and we’re given a key you wore around your wrist.

You are correct–a wire basket with your clothes was handed to a person behind a cage, who gave you a brass number on an elastic. When you came back, you and twenty other people would bang the numbers on the counter to try to get the person to take your tag first aand return your basket.There was also wierd dirty water foot bath as you went in, and a booth to leave valuables.

1968, I in 3rd grade @ PS 122, lived on 21 Ave in the garden apartments. It was baskets, you put your clothes in, brought it to the big cage window, attendant put the basket in the next numbered shelf opening and gave you the wristband with that “locker’s” number on small round medallion. Before going into the pool a shower was mandatory and then you were off into aqua heaven. Pool opened at 12noon, 50 cents to get in. Maintenance/cleaning opened the pool at 9am, you could get in free from then until 11:30 am, then out and around to the steps where you waited on a line, if it was a heat wave, then paid 50 cents when the ticket window/pool re-opened @ noon.

Great memories! I learned how to swim at the Astoria Park pool around 1968. Free swimming lessons were given from 8 AM to 9 AM, before the pool was opened to the public.

I lived in Astoria from 1944 to 1952. My mother would take me and sister to Astoria pool and Astoria Park often during the summer. We would take the bus, I recall. I learned to swim in that pool. Wonderful memories

Look at any of the early photos of Astoria Pool and you will not see anyone of color. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker tells a sorrowful tale of racial discrimination in many of the grand projects promoted by Robert Moses in those early days. Yes, things have changed, but all the fun of Astoria pool and many other fine facilities like it were reserved for white people back at that time.

Not true. There just was many people of color back then in this section of Astoria. It was just a hardship travelling then due to the distance.

People just cry

Come on. Now stop that Jim. I went to the Astoria Pool very, very often in the late 60’s and early 70’s and never experienced what you are stating. Parents and kids from EVERY WALK of life and every shade of color went to the pool and enjoyed themselves. 99% of the time everyone got along. There is no room for that comment. What pool were you attending? Sure wasn’t The Astoria Pool.

As a kid in the 50’s & 60’s I lived on 23rd St and 23rd Ave, just a quick walk to the pool. You are correct there were all races enjoying the pool. At 73 now, how I miss those fun days in Astoria.

I attended the Astoria pool in the late 50’s and 60’s. It was a wonderful trip from 27 th ave(ASTORIA HOUSES) to the pool by foot, it was several miles. The guys enjoyed playing pranks on one another as we got there. We were able to get in for 10c and years later for 25c we learn to dive from the spring boards as young boys and learned to swim as we played tag. Learned responsibility , we had to safe guard our locker keys. It was so much fun at the snack bar. Sitting on the wide steps and watching the people in the water or just walking around was a show in itself. Several years ago we returned to the pool to reminisce about our days, but it was being renovated, never the same. Hopefully next generation will enjoy the pool as much as I did!

You are correct. In the 60s and 70s swimmers of all races enjoyed Astoria Pool. Jim might be referring to the earliest years of the 30s and 40s. Also, the photographers might have been selective when choosing subjects for their photos. You never know!


I went there many times with my parents and later with my friends. My Dad dived from the high divingboard. As a young teen took the bus with my friends. We lied about our age so we could get in for 25 cents. Wonderful memories 💖❤♥

I went there many times with my parents and later with my friends. My Dad dived from the high divingboard. As a young teen took the bus with my friends. We lied about our age so we could get in for 25 cents. Wonderful memories 💖❤♥

I loved the pool, but hated the foot bath that you had to walk through as you exited the locker room. I did contract athlete’s foot via this bath, but only on one foot. Other than that, I remember the smells of the chlorine, the sound of the traffic on the Triborough Bridge, and the hamburgers cooking. Great, great memories

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Born in astoria 1938,I remember as a girl waiting on the long lines to get to the pool then having to bathe your feet.My dad would take a bunch of kids to the pool.He dove off th high board.It on my bucket list to see Astoria again once before I pass.

I grew up in Astoria in the 50s and early 60s and the pool is where my sister taught me how to swim. She taught dozens of neighborhood kids how to swim. Astoria Park and Pool were established places that brought pride to those of us who lived there and loved our neighborhood. The Hell Gate Bridge and East River were a perfect backdrop.

Dove once..only once, from the top most board when lifeguard was not paying attention…I was probably too young–(age 8, 1959?), but I did a cannonball, went directly to the bottom, not a hard landing, but…then my problems began… It was a LONG ways up to the surface!

Lots of respect for water, depth, and now–liability insurance!

Wow! I was born in Boulevard Hospital in LIC and lived at 22-10 and 22-40 80th St off Ditmars. Back in the 1950’s I used to get to go to the pool on those non-air conditioned days! Memories…

I lived right across the street from Astoria Park and spent my summers at the pool ,late nite ,pool closing ,I was 10 yrs old, lifeguard gave me a chance to jump off the 2 highest platforms the 27 and 36 I believed was the height, I DID IT, touched bottom of the pool, an amazing experience!!!

I’m sitting with my 90 year old dad who grew up at 1847 21st road in Astoria. He and his siblings went to the pool often. Thank you for posting this and letting him go down memory lane.

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