By Brian J Pape, AIA
New York is a city of islands: Manhattan, Staten, Ellis, Governors, Roosevelt, Randall’s, Riker, Long, Coney, and the list goes on. There are bridges that connect to most of them, and bridges need lots of maintenance, especially the oldest suspension bridges across the East River.
The Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest of our suspension bridges, designed and built by the Roebling family, and opened in May 1883. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world—50 percent longer than any previously built—and for several years the towers were the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere.
I say “family” with no disrespect for the heroic genius of John A. Roebling, the immigrant Prussian engineer who died from tetanus contracted when his foot was crushed in an accident on site in July 1869, soon after construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began.
Almost immediately, his 32-year-old son and partner, Washington A. Roebling, was named chief engineer in his place. But when he developed caisson disease (a.k.a. decompression disease) and became bedridden in 1870, his wife Emily Warren Roebling, an engineer herself, contributed more than 10 years toward the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Recently, the newly rebuilt plaza of the Brooklyn Bridge Park was commemorated for Mrs. Roebling. All three names are inscribed on the structure as its builders.
We have seen the metal parts of the bridge get many coats of paint over the years. What is so pleasantly surprising to observers today is that the masonry towers have gotten a thorough cleaning, which makes the neo-Gothic styled limestone, granite, and Rosendale cement stand out in their architectural glory. The masonry has never looked as good in our lifetimes, or since the bridge was first built; we are used to seeing a darker brown than even brown paint, but now the towers are nearly white in the bright sunshine.
If you haven’t stopped to notice lately, you will be rewarded if you do, either from the Manhattan or Brooklyn esplanades.
Photo by Brian J Pape, AIA.