“Features of Unusual Beauty and Utility”
Restoring Alpine Pavilion in 2016
- First published May 2016.
“Features of Unusual Beauty and Utility” was first published in the May–June 2016 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
You can download the printed version of this story.
All through the “hard winter” of 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, the building took shape. Men — most of them would be unemployed, were it not for federally funded work programs like this — struggled to stay warm as they broke the frozen ground and dug the foundation and the septic field.
They built the first floor out of diabase stones gathered from the talus slope, from where they had fallen from the ancient face of the Palisades. The men hauled the stones to the work site and turned them and chipped at them and fitted them one to another to form the exterior walls. The structure that emerged from all that backbreaking labor was massy yet graceful. The masons who supervised the work had the men lay the largest stones on the lowest courses, with the stones of each successive course a little smaller, so that the structure rose from the ground with a gentle taper, like a wine glass.
Within the walls carpenters built lockers and restrooms, so the building could serve its primary purpose: to be a bathhouse for the riverfront bathing beach it overlooked. Access to the interior would be through a wide stone archway that placed all that weight upon a keystone ten feet above the ground.
The second floor would be covered but left open to the air. From each corner a stone column helped support the slate roof, but otherwise it was all built on the timbers of chestnut trees that had been harvested from the standing dead of the Palisades forest — victims of a blight that swept the continent a generation before. Visitors would gain access to the second floor by a pair of broad stairways, one at either end of the building, built on a scale that could bring a medieval castle to mind. A Douglas fir floor was laid from end to end, and a rusticated railing, also made from chestnut timbers, was constructed around it, interspersed with stone segments that further augmented the castle-like feel of the structure. This would be a space for picnickers to relax and enjoy a meal after splashing in the river — or where an old-fashioned barn dance could be held.
Through four major blizzards and temperatures that bottomed out to be the lowest ever recorded for the area—still!—the men worked on. Federal funding for the program — the Civil Works Administration, or CWA — expired at the end of March, but the State of New Jersey made up the difference. The building, along with a nearby refreshment stand built at the same time and in the same style, opened on schedule for Memorial Day weekend that year.
In the Commissioners’ 1934 Annual Report, they wrote, “At Alpine a new bath house, 32 x 87 [feet] … was constructed and provided with all modern facilities. … [R]ustic in design and veneered with great boulders, it has architectural features of unusual beauty and utility.” Yet after just ten seasons, the original “utility” of the still-new building would be rendered moot: in their 1944 Report, the Commissioners wrote, “The Alpine bathing area was closed for bathing for the duration, because of river pollution caused by war conditions.”
In the decades since, the building — now called Alpine Pavilion — while no longer used as a bathhouse, has remained one of the park’s most popular amenities. Special events are held there, and it is reserved most weekends in the season for functions that range from meetings to group picnics to weddings. Early in this century, improved and accessible restrooms were added, to greatly enhance the facility’s appeal, and this year it has received some additional restoration, including a complete replacement of the original upstairs floor.
Being open-air, eight decades of moisture and snowfall took a toll on the old floor. Operations supervisor Anthony Taranto was tasked to supervise the replacement, including the selection of the appropriate materials. Modern materials such as composites were considered — these are often now recommended for outdoor applications like this — but were dismissed, given the historic character of the structure. Red cedar was considered an appropriate match for the original flooring, but was deemed too soft for the amount of foot traffic and weathering it would be subjected too. A hardwood was preferred, both for its more attractive grain structure and its fire retardant properties. The next balance was to find the most ecologically-harvested hardwood he could, and Anthony eventually chose West African mahogany.
Christopher Ciongoli, Inc., of Mahwah was given the contract. (Originally from Dumont, he has memories of coming to the site with his father to go fishing—when the building already seemed ancient.) Nine floor joists had to be replaced, and almost five hundred square feet of new sub floor was needed, using three-quarter-inch marine grade plywood. One of the most time-consuming tasks was to remove the original cut nails that secured the old flooring: each nail had to be individually cut with a grinder. When all that was done, the new mahogany flooring, tongue-and-grove planks four inches wide and three-quarters of an inch thick, was laid. A particular challenge was to create an effective seal between the new wooden floor and the original stone walls. Anthony’s research led him to spec out a caulking process for that. When all was complete, the contractors oiled the new floor.
The cost for the new floor was twenty-three thousand dollars for materials, and thirteen thousand dollars for labor.
A separate project to replace three sections of the original railings around the upstairs of the Pavilion was done by Yankee Construction (the same folks who so expertly rebuilt the stone wall toppled by Hurricane Sandy at the nearby Kearney House). Our own maintenance crew, meanwhile, has replaced the ceiling and the lighting downstairs, at the entrance to the restrooms.
It is gratifying to be able to honor this structure with some needed maintenance and restoration. We plan to celebrate the occasion with a barn dance on Sunday afternoon, May 22. Later that evening, we’ll also host a public bonfire on the old bathing beach. (We even saved a few pieces of the old flooring to add to the fire — call it a ceremonial touch, a way to acknowledge the legacy we have been charged to keep.)