Friday, December 19, 2008

Bridge Over Troubled Water

I don't get a terrible amount of sunlight in my apartment. It's not bad in the summer, but these days it's mostly just ambient, nothing direct. But one of the things I really love about my place is I have a fantastic view of my favorite bridge in New York, the Hell Gate Bridge:
--All images ©2008, Ryan Witte, except where otherwise noted. As always, if you're interested in using any of them, please feel free to contact me. I'm not unreasonable. Click them to see higher-res.
Nice, huh? So you see the workers working on that apartment building or whatever it is up the street. Some idiot developer is putting up this atrocious pile of barf:
I have no idea who the architect is, but he or she must have been a high school dropout. I've said before that I think to some degree aesthetics are innate. At the very least, almost all human beings have a sense of what other human beings are attractive or not. I think it can all extend from there, but many people who aren't indoctrinated into artistic modes of thinking lose the ability to see beyond a limited scope. As far as anyone who actually went to architecture school and I assume had an art history class here or there along the way, I just don't get it. I just don't understand how there can be so very much butt ugly architecture out there.

Anyway, I guess it has a roof deck, but there's also this chimney or ventilation shaft thing on the roof. Guess where it's located as seen from the other room. Yep. Perfectly situated to block only my view of the bridge and nothing else:
Isn't that awesome? No, seriously, they couldn't have done a better job of blocking my view if they'd been specifically trying to do it. You should have heard me muttering to myself, "you had BEST not be putting another layer of bricks on there..." But they did. And did again. And again. And by the way, what is up with those ugly little windows and those bannisters at the top? They have absolutely no relationship to one another at all. Didn't this moron even do any elevation renderings? Baffling.

So I decided to go up and see the bridge in person once and for all. I'd been watching the weather forecasts and knew what was coming, so I'm glad I went when I did. Here's what I see out my window right now:
YAY for snowstorms, though!

The bridge rises up over Astoria Park at the northern edge of Queens. I'd been to Astoria Park before but was doing something else and never really explored. It's a rail bridge that serves Amtrak trains. It was really cool to see the silvery trains going by overhead, but they were fast and few, so I never got lucky with my camera. It connects Queens to Ward's Island, then turns north and connects the island with Port Morris in the Bronx. It's really extraordinarily beautiful, click this:

It was designed by architect Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961) and engineer Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935), completed in 1914, and is said to be their masterpiece. Hornbostel operated an office out of Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other city in the world besides Venice. Building bridges was not only a way for the steel industry to showcase the magic of their product, but they would also test out engineering principles at a small scale on Pittsburgh roads crossing this creek or that before applying them to larger structures elsewhere. Hornbostel designed the campus for Carnegie-Mellon University there. One of Pittsburgh's many bridges, the Smithfield Street Bridge, was designed by Lindenthal in 1883.

Lindenthal was appointed New York City Bridge Commissioner by Mayor Seth Low in 1902, in response to public outcry over early proposals for the Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges by R. S. Buck that would have been a blight on river views. He would be in charge of submitting future bridge designs to the Municipal Art Commission for their approval. In 1903, Hornbostel & Lindenthal had taken over from Buck the design of the Manhattan Bridge, the next bridge north of the Brooklyn Bridge. But the newly appointed Mayor McClelland fired them a year later and Carrere & Hastings and Leon Morsieff replaced them. They were also responsible for the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, another gorgeous piece of civil engineering and the first New York bridge to break from the use of cable suspension.

Hell Gate Bridge was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and has been called the New York Connecting Railway Bridge and also the East River Arch Bridge. It was the first land connection between New England and Long Island and was the longest and heaviest steel bridge in the world, 1017 feet long and using 80,000 tons of steel. If the human race disappeared, it would be the last bridge standing in New York; according to Discover magazine, it would take around 1000 years to fall, 700 years more than all the rest. Lionel even made a miniature replica of it.

The name "Hell Gate" comes from the Dutch "hellegat," once applied to the full length of the East River. I've always found it very interesting that the East River is not actually a river at all, but a tidal strait: the current flows back and forth. At peak tide, the water flows remarkably fast, and until 1876, the river bed had numerous dangerous rock outcroppings. It was constantly sinking ships. In 1780, the HMS Hussar and its $5 million of British Army payroll sank because of the treachery of Hell Gate. Evidently the treasure is still down there somewhere near the Bronx. Scuba, anyone?

In fact, while not definitely a victim of dangerous waters, the burning and sinking of the General Slocum steamboat in 1904 was the disaster with the most casualties to hit New York City until September 11th.
--Photo courtesy the National Archives.
Around 1021 people lost their lives. There's a fountain in Tomkins Square Park in memory of them. I wasn't sure if this would be legible, but it turns out it is, if you're interested, the plaque in Astoria Park:

So in 1876, the Army Corps of Engineers went through with dynamite and blasted away many of the rock formations to allow for safer boat passage. A single blast at Hell Gate was the largest man-made blast in history prior to the Atomic Age. The river was also known as the Sound River, being connected to the Long Island Sound, and was later named the East River. But this narrow passage, dividing the lower section initially formed by glacial flow from the upper section formed by resulting tidal flows, has kept the name Hell Gate.

Wikipedia keeps saying the bridge was completed in 1916, but I always need to trust Robert A. M. Stern over all others, especially a source as flimsy as Wikipedia. Stern's New York 1900--Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915 claims the year was 1914. Furthermore, it was evidently--and somewhat obviously--the inspiration for the Sydney Harbor Bridge by John Bradfield, which was designed in 1916 (completed 1932), requiring at least a little time in between:
--Photo by Greg O'Beirne.

In any case, there's still something very odd about the closest train station, Astoria-Ditmars, said to have been completed in 1917. It's that it goes under an arch in the Hell Gate Bridge viaduct:
It's odd that 31st Street would just coincidentally happen to have an arch in the viaduct tall enough that an elevated train of relatively normal height could just slip right under it. Although very likely, whatever the exact years of completion, both were being planned very much around the same time.

But on the other hand, one has to wonder why they even bothered, since Astoria-Ditmars is the last stop on the N & W line. There was no need to allow for the possibility the line would continue any further; the shoreline is less than a mile to the north, and half of that is all industrial wasteland anyway.

It's kind of a shame that for my visit, the arch was all coated in scaffolding, but it makes for interesting texture.

Truly the viaducts are beautiful in their own right.

And I love the way it soars out over the borough of Queens like a wonderful strip of embroidery.

I'm almost tempted to wonder whether, if Robert Moses' highways and expressways had been built this beautifully, they'd have completely destroyed as many old neighborhoods in the Bronx as they did. Here's where the viaduct meets another trestle further east into Queens:

The eastern approach to the bridge:

It looks almost ancient.

At last, the beautiful Hell Gate Bridge. Here's a drawing from 1907:
The wondrousness of pure engineering was what was being celebrated, however, and much of this was rejected by the Municipal Arts Commission as being useless frivolity. What they ended up with was far more pragmatic. The eastern anchorage:

The western anchorage and Ward's Island viaduct:

Eventually I'd like to go explore Ward's Island. I did drive around it once, but I don't think I got down to the southern tip of it. That wasn't going to happen on this trip, though. Just for fun, let's look at what it would take me to get from the foot of the eastern anchorage to the foot of the western anchorage, shall we?
--Hike up to the eastern corner of Astoria Park and nine blocks to the Astoria-Ditmars subway station.
--Seven stops on the N or W to Lexington Avenue and transfer for the 6.
--Five stops on the 6 to 103rd Street.
--Six block walk over to FDR Drive and into the housing project.
--Meander up, around, and over the FDR Drive overpass and cross over the Ward's Island Pedestrian Bridge, which I'm not even entirely sure is open to the public, although it is a drawbridge, which is pretty cool.
--Hike over half a mile across Ward's Island Park.

Yeah. Really not going to happen. Maybe in summertime it'd be a nice day trip.

The trestle:

Also in the park, by the way, is the largest pool in New York City, built by Robert Moses for the 1936 Summer Olympics:

You can see my latest compositional fascination with riding the frame in narrow slivers. Don't ask me.

Above it are these terraces, no doubt for Olympics spectators, now presumably used by sunbathers, with these deliciously 1930s bannisters:

Hell Gate Bridge
Hornbostel & Lindenthal, 1914

©2008, Ryan Witte


Anonymous said...

One caveat on using the Syndey Harbour bridge as a dating device, vis a vis its use of this bridge as inspiration:

The Farnsworth House and the Seagram Building influenced the Johnson Glass house and the Lever House respectively, and both were completed later than their progeny. Minor caveat, but a thought I had.

Ryan Witte said...

Hey Peter,

I'm sure that's true, but Mies and Johnson knew each other well. Gordon Bunshaft didn't particularly like Johnson very much, but the three probably associated with one another quite frequently.

Bradfield, on the other hand, was all the way on the other side of the planet. Although it does sound like his doctoral thesis was on the engineering of train bridges, so you may be right.