Rye Town Park: A Busy Gem in Need of Polish
By Robin Jovanovich and Tom McDermott
On a sultry morning in late summer, as beachgoers were spreading their towels along Oakland Beach, we toured Rye Town Park with Rye Town Supervisor and Park Commission Chair Gary Zuckerman and Chief of Staff Debbie Reisner.
There was a lot to talk about: the new restaurant, Barley Beach House and the new kayaking lessons; the temporary fence around the pond; the booming hot dog stand business; and, not least, the stunning Spanish Mission style Administration and Bathhouse buildings, which require extensive restoration.
But first a little history.
Rye Town Park was created in 1907 when the Town of Rye (including the then Village of Rye) purchased 28 acres of land, including Oakland Beach, from Augustus Halsted, who previously rented bungalows there. At the time, residents of Rye who were not members of private clubs desired a recreational space of their own.
The Main Administrative Building was built in 1909 as a Bathhouse. The current “Bathhouse” was added in 1925. Both are adjacent to the parking area at the southeast corner of the park. After 1942, when the Village of Rye seceded from the Town of Rye to become a City, the park physically remained within the City but was jointly managed by a Commission made up of officials from Rye City and the villages of Port Chester and Rye Brook, chaired by the Town of Rye Supervisor – now Mr. Zuckerman. Rye is represented on the Commission by Mayor Josh Cohn and Councilmember Elizabeth Hurd.
RTP is busy all year round. It may be the most popular dog-walking destination in town and the green park and pond, whose rolling landscape was specifically designed to complement the structures, offers shady trees and restful benches for reading or contemplation. Together with neighboring Rye Beach (1925) and Playland (1928), the park offers an unusually wide expanse of public space along a saltwater shore.
The Rye Arts Center has begun to install sculptures in the park. There are concerts and Shakespeare on the Lawn. Weddings and religious services take place inside the pavilion, which was recently improved to accommodate wheelchairs. A new and popular restaurant, The Barley Beach House, opened this summer serving plenty of “frosé”.
But, there is much work ahead. “We have a lot of projects to do, some of which are grant opportunities, which Steve Otis is helping us with,” said Zuckerman, “We need to replace the roof on the Bathhouse and the interior and exterior. And, the interior of the Administration Building needs work. We want a safe and pleasant environment.”
The two are working informally Bill Lawyer and Peggy Peters on landscaping and gardening, and Zuckerman said Chris Cohan has been very helpful.
The Supervisor can’t hide his enthusiasm for the kayaking program. “We have training for people who want to learn. It’s a big success. We want to incorporate use of the park and the beach, green and sand.”
Lately, there has been mild controversy about the fence around the pond which was meant to be temporary. Some residents want it to be permanent to keep dogs from entering. Others are vocal about keeping the area open, in keeping with the original design. “We have the beach open all winter with no supervision. People need to use common sense,” commented Reisner.
With so much to accomplish and so many different user groups and constituencies, managing the park can be a complicated matter.
Easton Architects presented the Commission with its survey of both the Bathhouse and the Administration Building in 2017 (www.townofryeny.com/requirement/architect-reports). The Bathhouse currently houses toilet facilities for men and women, a security office, and storage and work areas. It needs immediate attention to make it an acceptable place in which to work. Easton told the Commission that the roof structure was “severely compromised”, the terra cotta tiles need to be removed and some preserved, the chimney needs to be wrapped, and southside gutters and spouts need replacing.
The Administration Building once housed the Rye Town Supervisor’s office in the base of the south tower, the Town Council met in the large room upstairs, with three glass and wood doors overlooking the beach and Sound. Originally, bathers dropped their belongings at a concierge desk, changed into swimsuits, and walked to the beach through subterranean tunnels.
Today, the building’s towers and other spaces are badly deteriorated according to Easton, with missing or detached stucco. The space where the Town Council met a century ago needs complete gutting and rebuilding.
All this work will need major funding. In an era of high taxes and tight municipal budgets, this might be accomplished through some kind of public-private partnership used by other organizations around town such as Rye Free Reading Room, Rye Arts Center, Friends of Rye Nature Center, and Jay Heritage. The Friends of Rye Town Park organization has always been supportive but is not meant to be a major source of funding for capital projects.
With such a sharp focus on trying to meet the financial needs of today, it remains an open question how and if the Commission can find the means to repair landmarks that represent an important bridge to the past.
“The plan has to come from the community. It’s a question of how you balance the needs of each village with the collective need,” says Zuckerman.
Park Director Laurence Vargas, Rye Town Chief of Staff Debbie Reisner, and Rye Town Supervisor Gary Zuckerman outside of the Park Pavilion
The dilapidated second-story kitchen in the Administration Building