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Transit Museum exhibit details building of Verrazano Bridge

December 8, 2014 By Raanan Geberer Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Archivist Mary Hedge leads the tour of the “Spanning the Narrows” exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. Eagle photos by Raanan Geberer
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The year 2014, which is almost over, is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, commonly known as the Verrazano Bridge, between Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

From its opening in 1964 until 1981, when it was surpassed by the Humber Bridge in the U.K., the Verrazano, at 2.7 miles, was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

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As one might expect, a lot of planning and work went into the bridge. That work is the subject of an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum, “Spanning the Narrows: The Verrazano Bridge at 50.” On Friday, this reporter went on a tour of the exhibit led by Mary Hedge, archivist for MTA Bridges and Tunnels and co-curator of the exhibit.

Hedge went into some of the early history surrounding the Verrazano. There were plans to connect Brooklyn and Staten Island at the Narrows, which are only one mile apart, since the 19th century. But because bridge-building technology wasn’t advanced enough at the time, the early proposals were for tunnels.

Pioneer bridge-builder David Steinman called for a suspension bridge across the Narrows as early as 1916. Throughout the 1920s, he raised money for it as a private project, but, according to Hedge, when Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor, LaGuardia decided that bridges should be public enterprises.

In 1937, the opening of the 1.7-mile Golden Gate Bridge proved to all that a long suspension bridge was possible. The bridge became part of city policy, but was interrupted by World War II.

By the 1950s, planning for the bridge began. The designer was Othmar Ammann, who had designed by the George Washington Bridge, and the project overseen by the metropolitan area’s autocratic bridge and tunnel czar, Robert Moses.

The exhibit features black-and-white photos taken during the construction process, as well as a scale model of the bridge made during the planning stage.  

There were four stages to construction — the anchorages, the towers, the cables and the two-deck structure (which was brought in by barge). Hedge gave some statistics: Each tower is 693 feet tall, and 30 million rivets were used during the construction.

Workers worked two shifts, with the cables lit up for the night shift. They took elevators that were built into the towers to get to the bridge — but then had to walk up and down the catwalks.

The crew took wires from spinning wheel that traversed the main cable and attached them to the span at pre-determined spaces. Then, the groups of wires were clamped into cables as well.

With all that, only three people died during construction — a big improvement over previous bridge-building efforts.

Among the most interesting artifacts in the exhibit are several drawings by Lili Rethi, a Bay Ridge artist who had come to the U.S. from Austria in 1939 after that country’s invasion by Nazi Germany. The workers liked her, said Hedge, let her go up onto the construction site, and even built a little hut for her so she could continue drawing during the winter.

On Nov. 21, 1964, an official motorcade opened the bridge. “It was one of the few times,” Hedge said, “that Robert Moses was photographed smiling. “ Later that day, the bridge was opened to general traffic.

The exhibit doesn’t contain any material about the political struggles that surrounded the construction of the bridge. “Hundreds of houses were destroyed, and thousands of people lost their homes — mainly on the Brooklyn side,” said Robert Del Bagno, director of exhibitions for the museum. There were angry protest meetings, but Moses refused to change the route of the bridge even slightly.

“Gay Talese, who wrote about the construction of the bridge at the time, years later interviewed many of the people who had been displaced, and most of them said they were living in better places than before,” Del Bagno said. “But they never forgave Robert Moses.”

The naming of the bridge was also controversial. The main force the naming of the bridge after early Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano was the Italian Historical Society. Its director, John LaCorte, felt that Verrazzano, who sailed into New York Harbor in 1524, had been neglected by historians. The society succeeded in getting a bill to name the bridge after Verrazzano introduced in the state legislature, and the bill was passed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1960.

After President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, a group of prominent Bay Ridge residents, including current Eagle columnist Chuck Otey, mounted a drive to name the bridge the John F. Kennedy Bridge instead.

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy settled the issue by saying the bridge should be named after Verrazzano, and in return, Idelwild Airport would be renamed JFK Airport. If you’ve noticed that the Verrazzano name is spelled slightly differently for the bridge, you’d be correct — the name of the bridge, says Wikipedia, is misspelled.

The entrance to the underground Transit Museum is at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Downtown Brooklyn. For information, call 718-694-1600.


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