Orchard Beach is ready to reclaim its title as the Bronx Riviera.
The once-grand pavilion, with its towering colonnades and vibrant blue tile, is a beloved relic of a different time. But in recent years the deteriorating structure has been mostly shuttered and fenced off from the public.
An ambitious, multimillion dollar renovation project is designed to bring the structure back to life and re-imagine it as a modern-day destination.
“Orchard Beach was everything for someone like me,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who has strong ties to the crescent-shaped slice of sand on the Long Island Sound. “Other than going to Puerto Rico, we didn’t have the means to go on vacation.”
Diaz recalled lugging pots of rice, coolers of food, hammocks and other provisions to the beach for long family outings. And learning to drive in the massive Orchard Beach parking lot was a rite of passage for Bronx teens, he said.
He has spearheaded the latest effort to refurbish the site by helping cobble together about $75 million from his office’s budget and from funds controlled by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state Assembly and the City Council.
That money will go toward fixing the pavilion, upgrading the electrical system, opening a new bathroom and elevator and adding ramps for easier access to the beach and promenade. The project — being overseen by the city Economic Development Corporation for the Parks Department — is currently in the preliminary design phase.
Last month, the city invited members of the community to weigh in on what they would like to see in the pavilion. Some ideas that emerged involved including a cocktail and wine bar, concert and dance floor, community space, retail and an art gallery. Another meeting is in the works.
“I would love to go there and eat at a restaurant, go to an event on the top tier and have shops and vendors on the bottom tier,” Diaz said. “Imagine all of this enclosed in glass so it can be open year-round.”
Diaz also thinks the South Yard area, an adjacent plot of land, could be the perfect place for Latin jazz concerts and ceremonies held in a garden-like setting.
Orchard Beach was the vision of former city Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who created the sunbathers haven in Pelham Bay Park with sand from the Queens and New Jersey shorelines in the 1930s. It is the only man-made beach in the city.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which landmarked the pavilion and promenade in 2006, highlighted its Modern Classical style design, which was “influenced by Beaux-Art principles.” The bathhouse is fashioned in concrete, brick and limestone, with tile and terrazzo finishes.
“Moses was always interested in quality, not shoddy stuff,” said Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan. “They were elegant bathhouses.”
Orchard Beach opened to the public in 1936 but was not completed until two years later.
“It was during the opening ceremony that Bronx Chamber of Commerce President George Mand declared Orchard Beach ‘The Riviera of the Bronx,’" Ultan said.
Despite being wildly popular, the pavilion and promenade — reportedly one of Moses’ favorite projects — fell into decline.
Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, the city Parks Department’s Bronx commissioner, said she has been heartened by Diaz’s passion for the rehabilitation project. She emphasized the need for the community to help decide on future uses for the pavilion.
“I’m very nostalgic,” said Rodriguez-Rosa. “I look at these old photos of Orchard Beach and think about an era when people would come to the beach all dressed up . . . but things change, cultures change. We have to try to keep up with the times.”
Diaz said he hopes fellow lawmakers will find more funds for much-needed infrastructure improvements on the boardwalk, a new soccer field, revamped basketball courts and other enhancements to the Orchard Beach area.
“Think of a ferry stop where somebody from Coney Island or Long Island City can come,” he said. “This is a way for us to be able to invite people and connect New Yorkers to see our Bronx Riviera.”