A True, If Unremarkable, History of the Williamsburg Bridge

Home Brooklyn Life A True, If Unremarkable, History of the Williamsburg Bridge
Who says this bridge can't be beautiful?
Who says this bridge can't be beautiful? (Joe Deaux/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Joe Deaux

Frankly, the Williamsburg Bridge is ugly. That’s what Scientific American thought when it reported in 1903 that the-then newly completed bridge was “destined to be popular more on account of its size and usefulness than its graceful lines.” John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, had said there was a need to have more than one bridge crossing the East River. And shortly after its completion, city officials realized Roebling was correct.

Leffert Lefferts Buck designed the Williamsburg Bridge in 1896 as a suspension bridge with steel towers. Initial plans called for a split-level bridge with two lanes for carriageways, six for elevated railroad tracks and one pedestrian lane. The use of steel was a relatively new architectural practice. Steel masonry towers were virtually the only constructs that could support the enormous weight of the Williamsburg’s railways and roads. In her book The Bridges of New York (2000), Sharon Reier pointed out the possibility that Buck’s design of the towers could have been influenced by Alexandre Gustav’s Eiffel Tower because they once worked together building bridges in South America.

The bridge is named after Benjamin Franklin’s grand-nephew, Colonel Jonathan Williams. Work on the bridge began when New York and Brooklyn were separate cities, and it was delayed briefly when the five boroughs united in 1898 to form Greater New York. In 1902 a fire started in a work shack on one of the towers spread to the suspension cables, threatening to derail progress.  But when New York merged, a new bridge commissioner named Gustav Lindenthal was appointed who had demanded stronger suspension wires. The sturdier wire ultimately saved the bridge from major damage in the blaze.

By December 19, 1903 the Williamsburg had been completed in seven years – the Brooklyn Bridge took twice as long to build. At 1,600 feet long, it surpassed Brooklyn as the longest suspension bridge in the world by 4 ½ feet. Unlike the 28 people who suffered serious injuries from the decompression process on the Brooklyn, no one died of the bends building the Williamsburg.

The first person to cross the bridge was Wally Owen who drove his 56-horsepower auto roundtrip from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Total cost of the bridge was $24.2 million, equivalent to over half a billion dollars today.

The bridge’s opening caused a flood of migration. A mass of Williamsburg’s former Irish and German population (who called the area “Kleine Deutschland,” Little Germany) moved to Queens when Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side moved in. The Williamsburg Bridge became known as the “Jews’ Bridge”.

The bridge was created before engineers foresaw the boom of automobiles and trucks, meaning that even the steel design could not hold the load of a modernizing transit system. Under each side of the bridge, new supports were added to eliminate sagging. Comfort stations were also built on either side of the bridge along the pedestrian walkway. The city hired Rafael Guastavino’s firm, Guastavino Co. – known for its “Tile Arch System” inside Grand Central Station and The Oyster Bar– to design the bathrooms. They are now inaccessible to the public.

By the 1960s neglect had become the mantra of the Williamsburg Bridge. The New York World-Telegram reported that rust from the bridge constantly plummeted onto unassuming pedestrians. One maintenance man was mugged while doing repairs.

In the 1980s the city determined the bridge was in terrible shape. The two options were to rehabilitate the bridge for about $250 million or replace it for $700 million.

Architectural firms across the nation submitted plans for a new bridge including a revolutionary split-level (same as the current design) by Figg and Muller of Tallahassee Fla. The plan would have constructed the new lower deck south of the old standing bridge; the new upper deck would have been constructed north of it. Upon completion of the two sides, the Williamsburg Bridge would have been demolished and the New Williamsburg sections would have swiveled together using a giant Teflon plate.

The city stuck with the old bridge.

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