Last weekend, my son Everett and I went to Brooklyn to shoot the bridge. My father, who lives in Florida, wanted a picture of his favorite marvel of engineering and Everett came up with the brilliant idea of going there to take the picture.
We were able to park on Court and Bergen Streets, ate lunch at a favorite Lebanese restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, then loaded the parking meter with enough quarters to max out at two hours, the limit.
En route to the Promenade, we visited the Brooklyn Heights apartment where I met my husband, the old Telephone Company building where my father used to work, and his favorite Italian restaurant, the Queen. I took a picture of the menu, highlighting the veal chop, my father’s favorite dish to order, now $35. I doubt he’d order it at that price.
On the Promenade, we took some pictures of the bridge in the distance, then walked to the foot of the bridge — and the skies opened up. Oh no! It had been my original plan to walk across the bridge and shoot it from all angles. Not only was it pouring rain, but we had just enough time to race back to the car to avoid getting a ticket. Except that we were 10 minutes late. Just before we got to the car, Everett ran into a fellow Oberlin College alum, who invited us to stay and view the fireworks from the roof of her Brooklyn apartment. She sent us pictures of the bridge she’d taken last year for the anniversary party.
I was surprised that Everett didn’t know more about the bridge, so I promised to show him this article I wrote last summer about the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey:
IT’S party time at the Brooklyn Bridge.
In May, thousands gathered to celebrate the 125th birthday of this marvel of engineering. And art lovers and tourists by the boatload have been flocking to the $15.5 million public art installation, “New York City Waterfalls,” by Olafur Eliasson under the bridge’s tower. Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story about architects reveling over cocktails, cheese and baguettes on the bridge’s platform.
It’s hard to imagine New York City, or the world, without the Brooklyn Bridge, or any of the other bridges – the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge – either designed by or built from cable manufactured by John A. Roebling and his sons Washington, Ferdinand and Charles.
It’s not just bridges this family of engineers, architects and businessmen deserve our gratitude for. The Roebling Company’s wire rope lifts Otis elevators and stabilized the wings of the Wright Brothers’ first plane. Charles Lindbergh’s aircraft used Roebling wire, as did the stays in ladies’ corsets and even the Slinky. New York’s Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and Flat Iron Building, and even Paris’ Eiffel Tower use Roebling wire to pull their elevators.
Cable cars, ships, telephone and telegraphs – the list goes on. “It was like the fiber optics of the last century,” says Clifford Zink, an architectural historian and historic preservationist who has spent the past 25 years researching, writing about and giving lectures on what these pioneers of the industrial age accomplished in the Trenton area. He is serving as a consultant to the new Roebling Museum, scheduled to open in 2009, in the quaint town of Roebling along the Delaware River – just a few RiverLine stops from Trenton.
Housed in the Main Gate of the former steel mill, the museum will tell the Roebling story: How John, born in Mulhausen, Prussia, studied architecture and bridge construction in Berlin, then came with a group of Germans to the Pittsburgh area to pursue Georg Hegel’s doctrine of self-realization. The U.S. was the land of opportunity, according to Hegel, where people could realize their full potential. In the town of Saxonburg, Roebling and his compatriots started an independent farming community and began fabricating wire rope for suspension bridges.
As demand grew, Roebling built a factory in Trenton in 1848.
In 1904, Roebling’s son Charles bought a 150-acre farm along the Delaware, 13 miles south of the capital city to build a steel mill for the manufacturing of the wire rope.
Kinkora Works opened in 1905, and Charles built a model company town to house the workers. “It was modeled on Pullman, Chicago, a suburb designed by George Pullman for the George Pullman sleeping car company,” says Mr. Zink, who wrote Spanning the Industrial Age: The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Trenton, New Jersey, 1848-1974 in 1992 with Dorothy White Hartman.
“But Roebling built a far more elaborate town than he had to,” adds Mr. Zink. The homes were built of brick with slate roofs and chestnut trim in 15 distinct architectural types, and there was a community hall, a library, baseball and football fields and a recreation hall, as well as an inn.
The two- to seven-bedroom houses were allocated for different skill levels of workers. Single men slept in a boarding house, and semi-detached row houses were used for entry-level workers. Foremen and supervisors received more spacious Colonial or Tudor style dwellings.
“This was during the model tenement movement, where social reformers had ideas about how housing could improve peoples’ lives,” says Mr. Zink. “They believed if you gave outdoor spaces with trees and a park, lives would be improved and employers would benefit from less absenteeism and more productivity.”
Most of the workers who came to live and work here were Eastern European immigrants recruited at Ellis Island. Accustomed to living in small villages, they saw the brick houses and thought they had landed in paradise, and vied for the 3,000 jobs.
“The Roeblings took care of their employees, and during the Depression they reduced the number of hours so there’d be enough work for everyone and they wouldn’t have to lay anyone off,” says Mr. Zink. Nevertheless, there were strikes for higher wages, but for the most part workers were content, according to George Lengel, a retired history teacher who grew up in Roebling. His father worked in the factory for 48 years, though he insisted his son go to college and find work that would use his mind. Mr. Lengel serves as the vice president of the Roebling Museum’s board of trustees.
The grid of four-by-eight blocks is lined with London Plane trees, which provide a canopy and let light through. Main Street and Fifth Avenue are broad streets with central planted islands. “Charles and Washington were orchid aficionados and took personal interest in the planting of the village,” says Mr. Zink.
Eastern Europeans had a tradition of piling garbage in their backyard, and so the town manager encouraged upkeep by awarding prizes for the best gardens. A tradition of gardening grew here, with many families having their own vegetable patch. Each had a different fruit tree for sharing, and there were grape arbors from which residents made their own wine.
A system of alleys was designed behind the street for garbage collection as well as for merchants to make deliveries. “There was Benny the chicken man, the milk man, the bread man and the horse radish grinder,” recalls Kathie Lengel, Mr. Lengel’s wife, a retired school secretary and treasurer for the museum.
A group of architecture students from Harvard recently picked Roebling as an example of the new urbanism, where everything is within walking distance, students can bike to school, row houses make efficient use of land, the alleys provide infrastructure, and it’s a community where everybody knows your name.
Indeed, standing on a street corner with the Lengels, hardly a minute goes by where a driver doesn’t greet them by name. An article in Architectural Digest also cited Roebling as one of the best examples of new urbanism. The old auditorium has been turned into a community center, the inn is now a home for senior citizens, and the old pharmacy, closed two years ago, has been turned into stylish condos. The RiverLine makes it an easy commute to Philadelphia – Mr. Lengel says he’s seen a crop of single professional women moving here with their cats – and it’s just a stop away to Bordentown’s trendy new dining establishments and shops.
“Even though the factory closed in 1974, the houses were built so well that they continued to be wonderful places to live,” says Mr. Zink.
Because of the hazardous materials left behind, the Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site in 1982. Money was allocated to a community fund, and this was used for the establishment of the Roebling Museum.
The museum, many of whose board members are Roebling descendants, has archives of documents about the company, the village and the people, as well as artifacts that are already on view on seven remediated acres on the grounds.
The New Jersey Council on the Humanities has given a grant to the Roebling Museum to make an orientation film; Mr. Zink is directing it. More than 20 former workers, villagers and descendants have been interviewed thus far, and the film is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Mr. Zink is rewriting his book on Roebling and expects to have it complete at the same time as the film.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Bergen County, Mr. Zink was always fascinated with suspension bridges. When he was 5, his family drove into New York City once a month, and the highlight for him was the trip across the George Washington Bridge.
“All the cars and trucks were held up by wires,” he marvels to this day. “People all over the world revere their bridges. There’s something magical about suspension bridges. Old stone bridges have arches, and there’s a downward force supporting the load. In suspension bridges, the weight is collected by spans to the tops of the towers, where gravity forces it down to the foundation and the earth. But I didn’t know all this when I was 5,” he continues.
In 1983, when living in Princeton, Mr. Zink went to the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and became interested in the story behind it. Meanwhile, dining in an Italian restaurant in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, he thought about the fact that all this celebration was going on in Brooklyn, but here in Trenton “no one was talking about it.” He went on to serve as executive director of the Trenton Roebling Community Development Corp.
“The story has so many facets, with innovation technology and heroic engineering,” says Mr. Zink, who earned a master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University. “John Roebling gave up his life and his son gave up his health to build the Brooklyn Bridge. These were men of great character, and in the letters they left you can read about it in their own words.
“John Roebling learned in Germany the sense of excellence, of building something really well. He wrote that the towers (of the Brooklyn Bridge) would be landmarks so he designed them with gothic arches to relate to the gothic cathedrals of Europe.
“Standing on the bridge’s walkway, I realized the brilliance of having it in the middle – you get the view on both sides and can interact with those walking in the facing direction. He wrote of it as an attraction for New Yorkers and visitors to the city to experience the walkway on the elevated promenade above the traffic.”
During May’s anniversary celebration at the bridge, Mr. Zink was invited as a special lecturer. “The mayor and the borough president sang happy birthday to the bridge, and there was cake and fireworks. Tens of thousands of people walked across the most prominent icon of New York City, and people from all over the world were doing exactly what John R. Roebling had written they would do.”