A good friend of mine tells me that there is a little old man who walks across the George Washington Bridge every day in search of cracks. Winter and summer, he trudges the 4,760-foot span, inspecting each steel cable, from Washington Heights to the Palisades.
I have to wonder about the old geezer—whether every now and then he wishes he’d find a big crack, or if he ever imagines the possible perils that might endanger the steel edifice. Or perhaps my friend lies, and no such man exists.
The George Washington Bridge, like the Brooklyn Bridge before and the Verrazano after it, was at one time the longest in the world. The 1934 completion of civil engineer Othmar Ammann’s design signaled a moment of triumph in an otherwise dark decade.
The bridge was not intended to be the only one crossing the Hudson. As far back as the Gilded Age, multiple bridges were planned to span the distance between Manhattan and New Jersey. Several of these plans later came to fruition through the construction of tunnels.
Yet there is another image, perhaps one more tantalizing than that of the glow of several suspension bridges crossing the Hudson. It is architect Cass Gilbert’s 1926 drawing of a stone-clad George Washington Bridge. Rendered in a chiaroscuro haze and bathed in the light of Gatsby’s New York, the bridge as pictured rises from the cliffs of northern Manhattan. The entrance is crowned by a pair of lions, a fountain with horses spewing water towards a central sculpture of burdened giants, and nymphs emerging from the rock in the background.
Best known for his Woolworth Building, Gilbert, working alongside engineer Amman, restrained himself when it came to the towers. Here, two immense Romanesque arches sheathed in granite recall the solid dignity of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The George Washington bridge was erected at a time when steel-and-glass construction signaled the future for engineers and architects. Freedom had finally come from the shackles of stone and superfluous moldings and indentations. Nevertheless, Gilbert, a Beaux-Arts-trained architect, decided on a grand gesture. His plans even called for a boat landing at the base of the pier, from which, he had hoped, an elevator might carry passengers to a restaurant in the sky.
End of the dream
Many dreams of New York were diminished with the onset of the Depression. Flourish and ornamentation offended a frugal age. According to The New York Times, in 1931, the bridge remained “stark and unadorned ... with a certain functional grace which makes a special appeal to the present generation.” Gilbert’s ornate designs were a thing of the past, a relic of a fading style and generation.
As the old geezer walks the bridge day by day, does he see its elegant steel construction? Does he consider the “honesty” of its structure, the unadorned steel and cables? Surely a stone-clad tower would show more cracks.
From the middle of the bridge, where the cables dip to a trough, the spires of Manhattan rise in a chaotic cluster that offends the bridge’s stern symmetry. To the north, the cliffs of the Palisades face the high green forests of Inwood and enchant the upstate passage. Stranded in this windy, beautiful place, I imagine the sublimity of the unbuilt towers that are now covered in soot and fractured granite.
The audacity of heights
The George Washington Bridge is a matter of celebration—of crossing, of connection, of movement, and, of course, that great cognitive leap that separates us from beavers and chimps.
I do not intend, of course, to detract from the beauty of the George Washington Bridge, or necessarily to insult the tenor and style of a generation afflicted by the Depression. What I am looking for, I suppose, is the awe of arrival and accomplishment. That crossing, today, is only felt by cars. The pedestrian paths are pushed aside, along narrow paths accessible only through convoluted entrances.
The stone, in truth, adds no elegance. Its arch suggests the melancholy of an architect whose world has passed, whose dreams remain in a White City that will never be. But Gilbert’s was a city of man, a celebration of his spanning the heights, and an archway appropriate to the grandeur of his arrival.
There is another drawing of Gilbert’s, which shows the design for a cable end. Beside the monstrous detail stand two men, looking out over the Hudson. An old-fashioned car awaits their continued journey in the foreground. These men have now been erased. The geezer, who I like to imagine was long ago one of the black silhouettes, now walks back and forth between the towers, forever in search of cracks.