In Celebration of the George Washington Bridge
Copyright Vladimir Kagan December 20, 2015
I cross the GWB (George Washington Bridge) four or five times a week to and from my studio in Clifton N.J. Thousands of cars and trucks join me each day. For trucks it’s the only route between Manhattan and New Jersey as they are banned from the tunnels. This enormous overpass is the conduit for millions of cars each year. It boasts the most traffic of any suspension bridge in the world.
To pass the time, I am on my cell phone or directing the Uber driver to ignore the ‘Google lady’ giving him wrong directions. Though the view is spectacular, I take it for granted! I seldom look out of the window.
That’s a huge mistake!
One day I took a moment to look-up and rediscovered this magnificent structure. The realization that mere humans conceived this gorgeous bridge was mind-boggling. Engineers and architects, whose names have long been forgotten and the hundreds of human hands brought it to fruition. And yes, the forgotten workers whose lives were lost in its building.
I was awe-struck by the massive chunks of concrete anchoring the cables at each end. It is unfathomable to contemplate the amount of concrete needed to create them. Imagine the number of cement trucks it would take to build such a mass. (The builders wisely had their own cement factory on sight.) Visualize the teams of men riveting each red-hot rivet into the superstructure. Squint into the sun and look at the height of the towers and the cables extending from them. Then imagine tiny men manipulating strands of steel stretched across the river’s span. If you are lucky, you might see the high-wire-act of today’s maintenance crews painting every inch of the bridge or servicing the string of light bulbs along its cables.
I have a wonderful connection to this bridge!
In my early teens, I lived on Riverside Drive and 103rd Street, in a gracious old building with a wire-caged elevator and a spectacular view of the Hudson River. I would often sit in our living room window and paint the changing seasons on the river. With a little stretch of the neck I could see the GW Bridge off in the distance.
My water color painting of Ice on the Hudson River - circa 1943
Though I was a good student in most subjects, I had a terrible time with math! I couldn’t visualize the hypotheses of mathematical formulas; algebra, geometry and trigonometry stifled me. I could not accept a theoretical truth. If it wasn’t visual, I flunked the test.
A few floors above our apartment lived a friend of my family, David Bernard Steinman. D. B. Steinman, as he was known to all. Mr. Steinman was an affable man who loved puffing on his pipe and explaining the theories of mathematics to me. He made mathematics visual. D.B. Steinman was not a tutor; he was the world’s foremost bridge designer!
D.B. Steinman was born on the lower east side in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. He fell in love with Roebling’s masterpiece and determined … he wanted to become a designer and builder of bridges. At age thirteen, he was the youngest pupil admitted to City College. He graduated with honors and went on to Columbia University receiving his PhD in engineering.
His career as a consulting engineer struggled for a number of years. He recalled … his first consulting fee was $5! Ten years later he was offered a job to work with Holton Robinson, who built the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges across the East River in New York. Mr. Holton wanted to enter a competition to build the Florianopolis Bridge in Brazil. The firm won the competition largely due to D. B. Steinman’s revolutionary new concepts for suspension spans. The Florianopolis Bridge was hailed worldwide as a huge success. His revolutionary concept laid the foundation for the successful design of the George Washington Bridge, which at the time was twice the length of any suspension bridge ever built.
In addition to the Florianopolis Bridge, Mr. Steinman’s list of successes include the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Triborough Bridge in NY, the Mt. Hope Bridge connecting Providence with Newport, the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan and the Messina Straight Bridge linking Italy with Sicily. One of his favorite projects was the commission to modernize the Brooklyn Bridge, the first love of his life. D.B was an avid writer and wrote many books of poetry and the best selling ‘The History of the Brooklyn Bridge’ and ‘The Biography of the Roeblings, THE BUILDING OF THE BRIDGE.’
In his memoirs Mr. Steinman gave words to his meaning of a bridge: “A bridge is more than a thing of steel and stone: it is the fulfillment of human dreams to link together distant places. A bridge is more than a problem in stresses and strains; it is a challenge and an opportunity to create the beautiful.”
He and I would sit for hours discussing bridges. The conversation would eventually be intermingled with the explanation of the bridge structure’s connection to math. His patience and love of math helped me to understand the theories of math well enough to pass my exams!
During our chats, he explained how the Tacoma Washington Bridge disaster could have been averted with a simple sea anchor to stop the oscillation that finally tore the bridge apart. He explained his theory of how a bridge could be built over the New York Harbor, even though it was considered impossibility at the time. His dream became the Verrazano Bridge. He described how the George Washington Bridge was designed to be clad with steel plates like the Golden Gate Bridge, but it was decided that the structure was too beautiful to be hidden. When I first saw the GW Bridge, it had only one deck! He explained that the clever engineers envisioned one-day, the increased traffic would need additional roadways and so their original design factored-in the second level.
These pieces of knowledge have stayed with me for sixty odd years, imbedded in my mind forever through the teachings of the indomitable D.B. Steinman.
Today, I no longer keep my head down. I love the approach to the bridge from the Henry Hudson Parkway. It looms up through the fog, glistens in the rain or shimmers in the sunlight. This massive work of art is nearly eighty-five years old and still one of the great wonders of the world. Next time you have a chance to cross the Hudson, enjoy all that is before your eyes.