The contemporary history of Marine Park begins with the so-named park itself. In 1920 two prominent Brooklyn philanthropists—Frederic B. Pratt and Alfred Tredway White—donated a large tract of land to the city for a park. Pratt was president of Pratt Institute and the son of its founder; White built some of the earliest model worker housing in New York, including the historic Riverside Apartments in Brooklyn Heights. Both men were also active in a city improvement campaign inspired by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Brooklyn Committee on City Planning, on which Pratt and White served, invited the Fair's famous planner, Daniel Burnham, to Brooklyn in 1911. Among other things, Burnham and his associate, Edward Bennett, urged Brooklyn leaders to preserve the open space around Gerritsen Creek for future generations.
This began a decades-long effort to build a great "marine park" here on the western shore of Jamaica Bay. Civic improvement was certainly the main goal, but the most vocal advocates of the park were real estate developers, who well knew that a major amenity in the area would make their still-rural holdings triple in value. Soon a plan was drafted, and what a plan it was! The work of prominent New York landscape architect and Brooklyn Committee member, Charles Downing Lay, it called for transforming the Gerritsen salt marsh into a titanic playground for the masses. At 1,800 acres, it would be larger than Central and Prospect parks combined.
Unlike the Olmsted parks—designed for contemplation and leisurely strolls—Lay's park was a vast machine for fitness and recreation, with bowling greens, bocce pitches, lacrosse and croquet fields, 200 tennis courts, 80 baseball diamonds, three swimming pools, a skating rink and an 18-hole golf course. In addition there would be a zoo, a thousand-seat casino with formal gardens, dozens of restaurants, and an open-air theater and music grove with room for 30,000 patrons. The vast park was set about a Long Canal—bulkheaded, straightened Gerritsen Creek—two miles long and shaped like a banjo. At one end, by Avenue U, was a Canoe Harbor; at the other a Big Pool for model yachts and racing shells. Rapid transit access to the park would come via the long-proposed Utica Avenue subway extension. The new line was to run down Utica Avenue and hook south at Flatbush Avenue, running above Avenue S across the park and ultimately joining an extended Nostrand Avenue line.
Construction on this playground of the century began shortly after the Depression, but little was done before Robert Moses was appointed the Commissioner of Parks in 1934. Moses scuttled the grandiose Lay plan and focused instead on the land north of Avenue U—the Marine Park we know today. Lay had suggested this be used for a football stadium—the largest in America. The elliptical structure was to hold 125,000 spectators, twice the capacity of Yankee Stadium at the time. Mayor Jimmy Walker, a proud Irishman, promised to name it for beloved Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, recently killed in a plane crash. Moses nixed the stadium, but his landscape architect, Michael Rapuano, echoed its footprint in the elliptical track around the playing fields—a well-used feature of Marine Park to this day.
And though vetoed by Moses, the Lay plan went on—incredibly—to win a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Until 1948, art was an official class of competition in the summer Olympics, and "Designs for Town Planning" was one of several subcategories (sculpture, painting, music and literature were the others). Lay was the first American to medal in the "Hitler games," a status generally accorded track star Jesse Owens.