What is that thing? and Orchard Beach

I spent a considerable amount of time deciding where to go on this most recent excursion. It came to me less easily – I reviewed my whole future excursions list and discussed the choice with some friends before settling on a couple of locations in the east Bronx and southeast Westchester county.

A few weeks prior while doing some errands I noticed a strange structure in the Pelham Manor area.  I couldn’t find any information about it online but I did manage to find it on Google’s street view and set my handy smart-phone-GPS for a nearby address.

It turns out that the structure is right in the backyard of Pelham Manor Fairway, another location of this favorite grocery store that we frequent. I wondered that I had never noticed the proximity until recently. Perhaps the building obscures it some? I took the opportunity to park in the nearly-deserted, expansive, back parking lot of Fairway’s shopping complex and set out on foot towards the mystery structure.

Back of Fairway and parking lot

Back of Fairway and parking lot

As I got closer it loomed over me. I was separated from it by ridge of snow twice my height, so I couldn’t get too close to its base. I puzzled at what it could be for. A metal scaffolding encloses a thick pipe which ascends straight up, turns 90 degrees, spans across the Hutchinson River, turns 90 degrees again and comes back down on the other side. Power lines reach up from telephone poles on both sides and across the top of the structure. The pipe must carry some sort of substance? There’s some reason whatever that is can’t go underneath the river?

What is this thing?

What is this thing? And snowbank

Me, what is that thing, and 10 feet of snow

I thought looking at where the mystery structure touches down on the other side of the river might provide some insight. Plus, I would get to walk over a double-leaf drawbridge on my way! I circled around the big mounds of snow flanking the parking lot and walked the half a block or so towards the bridge.

Old or faux-old lamppost

Control station for the drawbridge

Once there, I spent a good long time on the bridge. It provided a wonderful view of the mystery structure and the industrial district along the riverbank.

When cars rolled past on the bridge’s metal grating it rumbled and shifted, which would be unsettling if one wasn’t expecting it. But I waited for cars to come by; experiencing the movement of the bridge made me feel a sense of closeness with the location.

What is that thing?

Industrial zone on the river

Where the two halves of the bridge meet

What is that thing? And riverbank

I always try not to pay attention to what others might think, but the bridge is the kind of place where pedestrians don’t typically linger. There were some awkward moments where I wondered if passing walkers and cars thought I was strange for standing there and taking in the sights.

Eventually I moved on and completed my bridge crossing. It was on to find out what was on the other side.

Drawbridge gate

Drawbridge over the Hutchinson River

I took the first left that I could after the bridge. A small street led past a self-serve car wash and parallel to the river. It almost felt like a deserted alley, but I imagine it would be buzzing with activity on a weekday. On my way to the mystery structure’s touchdown point I passed warehouses, suppliers, and auto body places.

I finally got to the fences that surrounded the base of the mystery structure. The wires, structures, and “High Voltage” signs seemed to indicate this was some sort of power station. Because of the fences I couldn’t get up close to any of the buildings to really see, though. A sign on the fence read “Eastchester Creek 6”. (I later read that the Hutchinson River used to be called the Eastchester Creek.) At one point wires attach to a very tall, wooden, ladder-like structure, unlike any telephone pole I’ve ever seen. I wondered what is the purpose of this structure is too?

Power station on the opposite side

Power station?
 

“Eastchester Creek 6”
 

Power station? behind fence

I could have turned back at this point, but early on I had caught a glimpse of what looked like a tower of a very old building on this side of the river. I walked a little further and out of the industrial district to find out what it was.

Bus depot and discarded junk

Snowy sidestreet

As I got closer I came to a sign. This stone building was, indeed, very old – an 18th century historical landmark in fact! St. Paul’s Church, annex, and cemetery were not open but I walked around outside the gates and looked around. The stonework was so beautiful and it was touching and unexpected to see something so old near to so many ugly, modern warehouses.

St. Paul’s Church annex

St. Paul’s Church

St. Paul’s Church

Tomb at St. Paul’s Cemetery

It felt like time to go back, so I braved lack of sidewalks and snow piles and headed back. I spent a bit more time on the bridge this crossing, gazing at my mystery structure, looking up the river, and this time standing with one foot on each bridge half. My feet shifted one at a time as cars passed.

What is this thing? from bridge

Where the two halves of the bridge meet

Looking north on the Hutchinson River

Ducks on the Hutchinson River

Crows in a tree

Coming off the bridge I noticed lots of strange flotsam in sort of the backyard of one of the businesses on the river: a tattered American flag, long-handled tree saw, and interestingly designed fan blades hanging on a telephone pole.

Tattered flag and pruner

Fan blades on a telephone pole

Finally, the gate that comes down when the drawbridge opens caught my eye. Splintered fragments of a former, wooden gate still remained on the support although a much larger, heftier metal gate was actually being used. I was fascinated by the fact that these fragments had been left there and history they told.

Old, broken gate still attached

Before going on to my next location I took one last big loop around the still-deserted Fairway back parking lot. I wondered one more time at my mystery structure.

What is that thing? closer

Cherry picker and what is that thing?

But the parking lot held other interesting things too: views of the backs of the lots I had just walked in front of across the river, including some rusty, metal, structures of something and a giant, toppled-over tank of some kind.

Industrial district along the river

Toppled tank and St. Paul’s in the background

The far corners of the lot held still more treasures: stacks and stacks of shipping pallets, giant tires holding down a tarp, and snow-covered overflow shopping carts.

Pallets in the parking lot

Big tire and my foot

Wrapping up my circle of the parking lot, it was time to get back in the car and get ready for the next part of the excursion.

Because friends had begun asking and because ultimately the project that this blog is a part of will want to be shared in some way, I decided to invite a coworker friend to part two of this excursion. Timing worked out nicely, I scooped her up from the Pelham Bay Park 6 train stop. Again with some assistance from the smart phone GPS, we started on our way.

After getting a little lost trying to drive out to City Island, we finally did take the correct turn and hopped over the City Island Bridge for a drive down (what else) City Island Avenue and back. City Island might be an excursion for another day but today I just wanted to show it to friend.

Pelham Bay Park is huge, in fact the largest park in NYC. So I knew we’d have to pick just one part to see for the day. Entering the facility we passed many sanitation trucks hauling big heaps of snow, not sure where from or to. The park roads weren’t in great shape and most of the parking area was taken up by huge mounds of snow. We managed to find a spot and walked between playgrounds areas towards Orchard Beach.

It was beautiful. The snow over the sand transformed the landscape and made it feel like something other than a beach. There were a surprising number of people out – walking dogs, snowshoeing, walking and chatting. Indeed, the day was brisk but sunny, the kind of winter day where you don’t mind being outside.

Building at Orchard Beach

Snowshoer out on Orchard Beach

Looking out to High Island from Orchard Beach

We set our sights on the Orchard Beach Pavilion (sometimes also called a bathhouse), a structure that sits in the center of the crescent-shaped shore. As it came into view I tried to discern the architectural influences. It seems to draw from ancient influences: Egyptian? Greek? But much more sterile and not as ornate as these inspirations. The coldness of the architecture almost reminded me of Brutalism.

Unfortunately, there was scaffolding up around it, but luckily we were allowed to walk under it and even up its stairs. Squirrels had a field day running around on the scaffolding. They made such a racket one wondered if there wasn’t a person up there!

Orchard Beach pavilion

Squirrels run around the pavilion and scaffolding

The bottom floor, underneath the scaffolding, contained a series of metal gates covering entrances to beach shops. Slightly retro signs above indicated the past and future contents of the shops: “Hot Dogs”, “Suntan lotion”, and “ATM!”

Extension cord out from under one of the shops

We walked past and up the wide, exterior staircase of one of the buildings. At the top we trudged through deep snow to get into an open “room” on the second floor of the pavilion. Squirrels also had a field day in here, it appeared!

Upstairs pavillon in the Orchard Beach bathhouse

Squirrel tracks

Things were closed off from here, but coworker friend formulated a plan to climb over a set of doors made of a quite open pattern of metalwork. Before I could bat an eye she was on the other side, so I somewhat reluctantly followed. We walked across the length of the beautiful, curved balcony stealthily together, stopping to notice the amazing bright blue tile work, porthole-shaped vents, and retro sconces on the columns.

On the balcony of the bathhouse

Balcony of the bathhouse

Balcony of the bathhouse looking back towards doors

Sconces on the balcony of the bathhouse

At the opposite end of the balcony there was a descending spiral staircase. The tall alcove around it was completely tiled in the same bright blue. The stairs rounded a center column with a sun design on it. Friend hopped down the stairs, but it seems that the visuals in the area were more exciting than what was below.

Spiral staircase and tiles

Blue tilework in the staircase area

We didn’t want to be up there too long, so we made our way back across and over the doors again. We exited towards the parking lot instead of the beach, and got a look at the grand entrance to the pavilion and beach from this side.

Bathhouse from the parking lot side

I wanted to check out just one more thing before we departed: the bus station. I could see from a bit of a distance that it had a dated look to it, so friend obliged and we walked over to check it out. It was strange to see this hub of public transportation in its empty state when it clearly expected so many visitors. There were winding fences like amusement park lines. I thought how different it must look all filled with people on on a hot summer day. The curve of the station overhang mirrors the crescent shape of the beach and pavilion, but in the opposite direction.

Bus station closed for the season

No glass containers – in Russian too!

Orchard Beach bus station

We walked along where the buses would normally drive and headed back to the car, satisfied with the excursion though I will definitely return to other parts of Pelham Bay Park in the future.

As we walked back I meditated on this beach’s similarity to Riis Park. Both are Robert Moses creations so perhaps the comparison is natural. I remembered I mentioned Riis back in my Tibbetts Brook Park entry, too, so I wonder if it’s also a comparison I tend to make?

I also recalled the first time I was at Riis. The weather was similar, sunny but cold with snow on the ground. I walked along that beach with a different friend, also wondering that anyone was out in that weather and puzzling over bathhouse architecture.

Since the Orchard Beach excursion, Riis has been stuck in my head. I might have to go back in the context of this project – that first visit was also for artistic reasons, but a different project. Places can get stuck in your head, calling you to them. In fact, that’s how I usually pick my excursions.

I don’t usually leave assignments for my readers, but this entry seems to want that:

  • Do you know what my mystery structure over the Hutchinson River is and/or what it does?
  • Do places get stuck in your head? Do you then go visit them? How would you describe the experience, like a song getting stuck in your head or totally different?

[Map coming soon].

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10 Responses to What is that thing? and Orchard Beach

  1. Pingback: Jacob Riis Park | infrastructure

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  3. Jeff Morris says:

    I don’t know who you are, but I just came across your site by accident and I am enthralled. However, we won’t get into that now. What’s important is, what is that thing? I remember seeing that thing…possibly in my childhood, which is longer ago than I care to admit, but also possibly more recently, though I don’t frequent that area much. Or possibly I have seen that thing, or a similar thing, elsewhere. The thing is, that thing appears to have a fairly obvious function: it conveys big pipes across the creek in such a way that boats can get through underneath. Now, I don’t know if those pipes are water pipes, or gas pipes, or possibly even oil pipelines, but clearly they are pipes, and they have to get across the creek, but they can’t move up and down like the drawbridge does. Hence, the peculiar shape. Function=form, in this case.

    I intend to read and view more of your blog/site/whatever this thing is, when I have more time…whenever that is. Keep up the good work!

    • Emily says:

      Jeff, thanks so much for reading and for the compliments! I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

      Yes, I agree the structure’s pipes carry something from one side of the river to the other and that they must be so high up to fit boats underneath. But why not run the pipes under the river? Does that have to do with what’s in them or the environment of the river? What is in the pipes anyway? I’m still calling this one a mystery!

  4. Larry H. Spruill, Ph.D. says:

    I have an entire history of “the thing” and its relationship to the industrialization of Eastchester Creek. It is related to the creation “Oil City” beginning about 1875 -1940. This thing was a part of the transformation of the creek from a bucolic water way much like your see out at City Island and Orchard Beach in the industrial zone. There is a wonderful story about this project that involved land speculators, bankers, standard oil (rockerfellers), army corp of engineers, Mount Vernon city fathers, Mayor LaGuardia of NYC, etc. I am giving a paper about the project in Birmingham ALA in June. Email me.

    • Emily says:

      Dr. Spruill: I hope you see this. I tried sending you an email but got a bounce message. I’m very curious and interested in hearing more from you about the development of the area! Could you perhaps send me a message via my contact form so we could be in touch? Thanks!

    • Lissa says:

      Hi. I am a contributor to a history of my town. Eastchester is truning 350 yrs old in 2014 and I will be researching the history and info on the Hutchinson River.
      I would love to interview you and/or get some of your obviously interesting and valuable information.
      Please let me know if we could possibly be in contact to assist with my research

  5. John says:

    Hey Emily I know this post is old, but I figured I’d chime in. the Dr. is right, the area is called oil city, and tugs still to this day push barges of oil in and out. I had a great article on oil city and “that thing” email me and I can get it to you. Also I work for NYC Parks, and just wanted to say great article on the bathhouse. there is a great story behind that also it almost got knocked down recently, but now it will undergo a 60million dollar facelift

    Great Blog!

    John

    • Emily says:

      Hi John! Wow, thanks so much for reading and for the compliment. I will certainly email you – I never was able to get in touch with Dr. Spruill so I’m still looking for information on “that thing”. And wonderful news about the bathhouse renovation! I’d like to hear more about that too if possible.

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