The Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge
A Poem of Granite and Steel. Ever since its completion in 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge has fascinated the American public. Every feature of the built and natural landscape contributes to the speli: the intricate web of steel cables suggesting both delicacy and strength, the massive granite towers standing like twin Gothic gateways to Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the East River flowing dark and swift to the harbor below. A popular ballad of the 1880s, “The Highway in the Air,” captured the romantic aura of the new bridge. Young New Yorkers of the late nineteenth century warbled:
I firmly hope and trust, that the Highway in the air,
Will unite the two cities by the sea,
In interest and affection, and that the wedded pair,
Will give a loving Brooklyn Bride to me.
More than a century later New Yorkers’ romance with its “highway in the air” endures. Architectural cri tic Lewis Mumford once described the Brooklyn Bridge as a “poem of granite and steel.” The bridge combines grace, power, and utility, remaining an architect’s dream and an onlooker’s delight.
History of the Suspension Bridge. Although the concept of a suspension bridge—a roadway suspended by ropes, chains, or cables—dates to antiquity, suspension designs did not figure prominently in Modern bridge construction until the early nineteenth century. Several small suspension bridges, designed and patented by James Finley (1762-1828), appeared in America during the first decade of the century. More ambitious projects were mounted overseas in the following decades. In the early 1820s British engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) built a dramatic bridge over the Menai Strait in Wales, using metal chains as a suspension element. During the same decade the Frenchman Marc Séguin (1786-1875) employed wire cables rather than chains in the bridge he built over the Rhóne River. Séguin’s use of cables later proved popular in America—which by the 1840s had begun a full-fledged love affair with the suspension bridge.
John Roebling’s Vision. John Roebling (1806-1869) popularized the suspension bridge in the United States. Born in Mùhlhausen, Germany, Roebling immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1831. During the middle decades of the century he cemented his reputation with a series of high-profile suspension projects. He rebuilt a collapsed bridge at Wheeling, West Virginia, and designed bridges at Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls, and Cincinnati. As early as 1857 Roebling proposed—to the great amusement of the New York press—that a bridge be built between Manhattan and Brooklyn. A decade later, after a particularly severe winter halted ferry traffic on the East River, the city agreed. The scale of Roebling’s design matched that of the premier American metropolis. His plans called for twin granite towers, each 276 feet high, to stand at either shore, separated by a centrai span measuring 1,595 feet in length.
Ever since the first colonists arrived in the New World, Americans have enjoyed drinking beer. The North American colonies boasted a commercial brewery as early as 1612; by the time of the Revolution local breweries dotted the Northeast. Not until the 1870s, however, did large-scale brewing operations become feasible. Technological developments — steam heating, artificial refrigeration, and, by the 1890s, electricity to power compressors — finally permitted brewers to make beer year-round, even in the warmer regions of the country. The focal points of the industry shifted, too, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee becoming the nation’s new brewing centers. The mammoth urban breweries that were constructed across the country during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s are compelling architectural legacies of the late nineteenth century. These structures loomed over downtown areas, dwarfing residential units and shops.
Many breweries built in the late nineteenth century displayed the eclectic detailing common to the High Victorian period. The imposing American Brewery in downtown Baltimore, built in the mid 1880s, was a five-story brick structure topped with a gabled tower. This architectural style —dubbed “Germanesque-Teutonic Pagoda” by somewhat baffled critics — was partially fanciful and partially functional. Large windows around the “pagoda” added a decorative touch to the facade but also exposed the ventilators integral to the brewing process. Although few of the great nineteenth-century breweries remain in operation, in their heyday these structures slaked the public’s thirst not only for beer but also for architectural spectacle.
Source: Diane Maddex, ed., Built in the U.S.A.: American Buildings from Airports to Zoos (Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1985).
A Family’s Tragedy and Triumph. Roebling did not live to see his masterpiece materialize. In 1869 his foot was crushed while he was surveying the building site. The wound became infected, and he died within weeks. His son, Washington Roebling (1837-1926), took charge of the project. Trained as a civil engineer, the younger Roebling was well-qualified to carry on his father’s work. Tragedy continued to stalk the Roebling
family. In the spring of 1872 Washington developed decompression sickness after working underwater in a pressurized chamber; he remained wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Despite his disability, Washington Roebling saw the project to completion, directing construction from his Brooklyn home with the aid of his wife, Emily. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic on 24 May 1883, it represented a triumph of the will of an extraordinary American family.
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).