Money & Careers

Women Who’ve Made a Difference: Ann Buttenwieser, the Floating Pool Lady

-1 Ann Buttenwieser aboard The Floating Pool Lady. (Photo: Etienne Frossard)

First published January 9, 2014.

Ann Buttenwieser became a Living Landmark this past November 14—by proclamation of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which annually honors several New Yorkers who have made outstanding contributions to the city.

Her acceptance speech at the Fall Gala was droll. “Xaviera Hollander, whose name probably everybody over 60 knows—but probably has also conveniently forgotten—was the author of a best-seller entitled The Happy Hooker,” she said in a knowing voice. “Her business card listed her name, her phone number, and her motto: ‘It’s a business doing pleasure.’ In her book, Ms. Hollander wonders why she should have been paid to do what she [slow, conspiratorial whisper] so much enjoyed. I too wonder why I should be rewarded now by the New York Landmarks Conservancy for doing what I have [theatrical pause] so much enjoyed.”

Pleasure has indeed been Ann’s business since 1980, when she came up with the idea of a floating swimming pool—a barge parked in a New York City river as a summertime oasis for underprivileged kids. They would be “in the water in the water”—a refreshing prospect. Ann, who grew up in Annapolis, “was in the water or on the water every summer. I bought a sailboat with my own money when I was 13, and was on my high-school and college swimming teams.” She knew just how bracing an afternoon in a pool can be.

But it took 27 years for Ann to bring her vision into reality. Her political savvy, fund-raising prowess (“It was easy!”), diplomatic skills, and enduring zeal were made manifest in 2007, when The Floating Pool Lady, the brightly colored swimming barge, opened off Brooklyn Bridge Park. It hosted 50,000 swimmers in its first summer. (See a slide show on the Lady at the link above.)

New York rivers sported floating pools beginning in the 1880s, when tenement apartments had no running water. The city built floating baths on pontoon structures moored off Brooklyn, the Bronx, and especially, the Lower East Side. “It’s where people would go to become clean,” Ann says. They’d bathe in river water, in a pool with wooden slats at the bottom to keep them from being swept out to sea.

When her four children were young, Ann helped to found an organization that advocated for neighborhood parks (The Council For Parks and Playgrounds). She was good at getting things done—grateful for the political savvy she had absorbed from her father, who had worked for the federal government: “I figured that I had learned very well from my father how to navigate ‘the system,’” she says. But when experts from the City Planning Commission came to a meeting at the council, Ann realized that she didn’t understand their techno-speak. “So I decided to go to graduate school to become a better board member. I didn’t have any idea what I would do with the knowledge I’d gain, other than to be an intelligent participant in my not-for-profit activities.”

Ann was in her forties. “My kids were moving out of the house. Being a full-time mother, which was extremely rewarding, was no longer in the picture. There had to be a future for me as well.” So she went to Columbia to get a Ph.D. in urban planning.

And, researching her thesis “in the bowels of what is now the ferry terminal that takes you out to Governors Island,” she found that the Department of Ports and Terminals had all its archives stored in boxes organized by year and pier number. “You could follow activities on the waterfront from 1880, when the dock department was formed, till the 1940s.”

She was in her element. Intriguingly, “I kept coming upon phrases like ‘OPEN THE FLOATING BATHS’ . . . ‘CLOSE DOWN THE FLOATING BATHS.’ So I did more research.” She discovered that in the early 1900s there were 15 baths. Five were refurbished after the health department closed them when testers poured red dye into a nearby sewer—and the pools turned pink. Robert Moses closed the last baths in the 1930s. In 1980, Ann wrote a Times op ed about those old floating pools, speculating that it would be good to bring them back—redesigned.

After that, “Wherever I went I advocated for a floating pool. I founded the not-for-profit Neptune Foundation. I was fortunate to get an initial million-dollar grant from a legacy, and that started it. Raising money was easy. Literally. You call someone and say, ‘I have this great idea,’ and they say, ‘Sure.’”

But what really brought the barge/pool into being was, she knew, the experience she’d acquired in working for various city agencies after she got her Ph.D. By 2001, “I had worked in every city agency with a waterfront portfolio. I knew where to go. I never would have even thought of doing this if I hadn’t had that experience. A neophyte would have found it too difficult, not knowing who to approach, who you’re going to be up against, how to handle yourself in going to meetings, having to get state, city, and community officials to pass things. I had done that in my work, so it was easy; this was my labor of love.”

Her dedicated partner on this project was architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld, “a fabulous man. He put his whole heart into this.” Jonathan designed the floating pool, supervised the barge retrofit, and spent six years, with Ann, maneuvering the plans through agencies that were all too likely to say no to so innovative an idea.

floating pool ladyJonathan Kirschenfeld during construction of the Floating Pool Lady (Photo: Doug Cabot)

What they faced in wheedling officials to give permissions; getting insurance companies even to consider insuring the project; retrofitting the barge they bought in Louisiana (both the barge and the construction crew were impacted by Hurricane Katrina) and towing it to New York is clear in this video, made during the construction process.

The barge in process of transformation. (Credit: Doug Cabot)

But the greatest cliff-hanger was the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s threat to fine Ann $50,000—levied a week before the pool was to open on July 4, 2007. The official reason was that she didn’t have a building permit. (She’d been told that she didn’t need a permit for the work being done at the former Port Authority piers in Brooklyn.)

Ann is somewhat sympathetic to the D.E.C.’s need to worry about protecting the waterways. “Federal environmental laws require clean rivers and prevention of damage to aquatic life; thus, D.E.C. can look favorably only on water-dependent uses and those uses that don’t damage fish. If we’d used river water, they would have allowed the barge. I tried. I went to one community and said, ‘We can bring the pool here and use river water,’ and they said, ‘Oh, no, there is a combined sewer outfall on either side of the pool. We would never go in that pool!'”

In the end, the floating pool was controversial because “The barge, which is fairly large, casts a shadow on the water and the D.E.C. believes that shadows kill fish.” And, Ann assumes, the agency didn’t want to set a precedent by allowing a non-water-dependent use in the river, opening the way for “every Joe Doakes who wants to put a generator or apartment house on a barge.”

Bottom line: Ann negotiated the fine down to $20,000 and paid it—over the objections of the Neptune Foundation’s board—because of her conviction that “If we open, we’ll have a constituency and no one is going to say no after that. And that’s exactly what happened.”

In 2008 the Neptune Foundation donated the barge to the city, which now maintains it. For the past five years The Floating Pool Lady has spent the summers at the tip of Barretto Point Park, in a highly industrialized area in the Bronx. Ann is delighted that the pool is gracing such an industrialized neighborhood. “It’s an area with the highest asthma rate in the city. Obesity is rampant. You can have recreation mixed in with industry; you don’t have to wipe out all the industry at the waterfront to have a park.

“The joy on the faces on the kids, both in Brooklyn and, particularly, in the Bronx,” Ann says “—except for my four children, and marrying my husband, this is the best thing that could have happened to me.”

What’s the hallmark of a Living Landmark? Obviously, the kind of vision, resourcefulness, and determination that can conjure up—and bring into being—a seven-lane floating oasis that delights thousands of New York City kids, summer after summer.

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