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InterviewsDavid Billington

Great Projects: The Building of America

DB: The direct influence of the Brooklyn Bridge, of course, is what John Roebling had foreseen, namely, it connected the civic centers of Brooklyn and Manhattan and then led, led to the direct incorporation of Brooklyn into New York City. Originally it was the third largest city in the country and New York being the first largest. Then in the 1890s, just a decade after the Bridge opened, Brooklyn became part of New York City. So that was a, that was a direct influence of the Bridge itself.

DB: Well, the engineering, the engineers, of course, were drawn to this work and they were, the engineers in fact were in New York City already and it was already an important city, and that was in part due to the railroads, which had nothing to do with the Bridge, but the, bridge itself provided a home for engineers who later then became important in the profession. Roebling's assistants, those people who had worked on the building of the Bridge, all were, but I don't think it's fair to say that the Bridge itself was the cutting point in the actual profession in New York.

DB: It's always inspired engineers. Brooklyn Bridge has always had that influence. It was perhaps lost from the, the scene for a short while, but you only have to read what Ammann wrote and how Ammann felt in the early '20s to realize how much of a model the Brooklyn Bridge was for him once he had gotten to America and begun to practice in this country and then in New York City or around New York City. So there's a clear heredity there.

DB: Ammann begins to write articles in the early '20s that deal with the history of bridge design and which present a summary of major bridges mostly in the United States. It's rather clear that what he's really doing is preparing the groundwork for his George Washington Bridge design. And in these articles, Brooklyn Bridge always plays a role. It's a model for him. It's an idea. He's fascinated by the proportions of the Bridge, by the way in which the stone towers and the very slender deck react to, or impress upon the viewer this contrast between the ancient and the modern, between what might almost be called architecture and engineering. These are things that touch Ammann because up to this time he has not been so involved in thinking about designing his own bridges, at least not publicly. He'd been working for Lindenthal. He'd been a key person on the Hell Gate Bridge, but he had not really himself tried to think out ideas about bridge design. And so the historical exercise of looking at past works provided him with the inspiration to think out from scratch his own ideas, which resulted, first, in the George Washington Bridge and then, of course, in the whole series of bridges which we know so well, right up to the Verrazano.

DB: These bridges in the late 19th and early 20th century reflect and in a way symbolize the emerging dominance of the United States as the world's leading industrial nation. That begins with the great steel industry that began to appear after the Civil War. It includes the Port of New York and its great commercial trading wealth. It also includes the attraction of this country to some of the most talented people from abroad. These factors all combined to create a, a nation of immense industrial wealth. Only such nations can afford to build these huge structures, structures that far exceed the capacity of the size of ones done elsewhere. And, therefore, starting with the Brooklyn Bridge and really ending with the Verrazano Bridge, America dominated not just in bridges but in its industrial might. The bridges characterized that because of the, the daring and the vision that they required, not just the daring and the vision of the engineers either, but the engineers had to convince the general public mostly through civic leaders and through politicians, that such things were not only possible but desirable.

DB: The engineers themselves gained a great confidence. Somebody like Roebling, of course, was born with a sense of supreme confidence. And in a way the best of these engineers did possess a kind of internal security of their own vision that their education helped them to build that, but they still possessed it. It was a characteristic of their personalities. Ammann was a particularly good example of that and a kind of internal stability and ability to, to think on his own and to push his own ideas.

DB: These engineers helped to build the attitude in the country during the late 19th and early 20th century of the greatness of engineers. There were, for example, in the 1920s a series of movies in which engineers were portrayed as the heroes, builders, people like Ronald Coleman striding across the plains building dams and bridges and it was a time of the heroic engineer. Ammann, Roebling helped to provide models for that, although not directly so. They did not become movie stars or they did not become even the object of movies, although one could have made a wonderful movie out of Roebling and I believe also out of Ammann. Still, they were part of the culture of the country, which saw engineering as the way to solve most of the problems that arose in this big, uncoordinated, disconnected continent.

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