In 1927, New York was the top of the world. Over a slim three year period, from 1928-1931, no fewer than three of the world’s tallest buildings shot up into the sky — 40 Wall Street, The Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building, the last of which remained the apex of height for 42 years. The city’s office space increased from 74 million square feet in 1920 to 138 million square feet in 1935 (per The Encyclopedia of New York City
). Thanks to Prohibition, we took full reign of the booze-fueled progress and our city surged spectacularly. However, as high into the sky as we could possibly go, there would be no point if there were no connections to the rest of the continental United States. We had all four East River Bridges, we had the Holland Tunnel, but we had no Hudson River Bridge. And so, in September, 1927, construction began on the George Washington Bridge.
Like so many other major municipal projects, including the abovementioned ESB, as well as Rockefeller Center, the GWB was built through the Great Depression, opening on Oct 25th, 1931. Chief Engineer Othmar H Ammann, from Switzerland, is easily the most accomplished bridge builder in NYC’s history — he’s responsible for more than half of the eleven bridges that connect NYC to the rest of the world. After working on the GWB and the Bayonne bridge simultaneously (the Bayonne opened one month later), Ammann went on to design and build the Triborough in July, 1936, the Bronx-Whitestone in April, 1939, the Throgs Neck in January, 1961, and the Verrazano Narrows in November, 1964; the last four he built were for Robert Moses’s expanding automobile empire. Ammann was such a successful engineer because he understood the necessity in building cheap yet building beautiful. All his bridges carry graceful designs that belie their tremendous load-bearing capacity — the GWB carries approximately 300,000 vehicles daily, under a combined weight of 113,000 tons of steel, 28,000 tons of cable wire and 200,000 cubic yards of masonry.
The GWB was built by the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) and upon its completion, it had the longest main span in the world, at 3500 feet; the previous longest span belonged to the Ambassador Bridge (connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario) at 1850 feet. Prior to the Depression’s onset, noted architect Cass Gilbert (the Woolworth Tower, the Old U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green, the U.S. Court House in Foley Square and the New York Life Insurance Building at Madison Square Park) intended to sheathe the bridge’s spare steel towers with concrete and granite slabs, but this was abandoned in face of the mounting costs. The bridge is the only 14-lane suspension bridge in the world – 8 on the upper deck and 6 more on a lower deck that was added by Moses in 1962. The GWB also boasts the largest free-flying American flag in the universe, at 90 feet vertical; the red and white stripes are 5 feet wide and each star measures 4 feet in diameter. However, all you patriots out there have to wait to salute — the flag is only brought out for eight holidays a year.
Modernist maniac Le Corbusier was crazy about the George Washington Bridge, writing, in his When the Cathedrals Were White
, "the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.” Clearly words written by someone who has never hit traffic on the bridge. Happy 75th Birthday, GWB!
Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys' Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.