Skip to content

The Verrazano Bridge Turns 50

21st November 2014

The following is an excerpt from New York’s Golden Age of Bridges.

In 1964, the year the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened, Othmar H. Ammann was eighty-five years old and at the end of a glorious engineering career. More than forty years earlier, Ammann was given the daunting task of designing the first major span over the Hudson River, what became the George Washington Bridge. Ammann had delivered a bridge that Franklin Delano Roosevelt described as “almost superhuman in perfection.” But for Ammann, the George Washington Bridge was a tantalizing first course. He would consult on a multitude of America’s most important spans. He also would count among his accomplishments the Triborough, Bayonne, Bronx-Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges.

But one more span was to come. And many would consider it Ammann’s ultimate achievement. In the late 1950s, Robert Moses assigned Ammann the task of creating a span that would join Brooklyn and Staten Island at the Narrows, where the upper New York harbor joins the lower New York harbor. The new bridge would be named the Verrazano-Narrows after the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who had sailed into New York harbor in 1524. The bridge would be, at the time, the world’s longest and heaviest and would be the only highway connecting Staten Island and another city borough, Brooklyn.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge also would stand as the new portal to New York harbor. Lady Liberty, with her raised torch, would no longer be the first to greet visitors and immigrants. Instead, they would be greeted by Ammann’s state-of-the-art span. Nearly one mile long with two soaring 693-foot towers, the Verrazano-Narrows was a vision of staggering immensity and technological wizardry.

Sometimes a Great Notion
The notion of linking Brooklyn and Staten Island first surfaced in 1888, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad floated plans to build a tunnel to expand its Staten Island North Shore line route. Financial problems prevented the project from progressing. Throughout the next 50 years, other plans were proposed. One included a 2,500-foot steel arch span. Another was a twin-tube railway tunnel. Another was a 4,620-foot suspension bridge with Gothic towers outfitted with bells, beacon lights, and an observation deck. All of these plans were derailed, mostly for financial reasons and because the military decided that a bridge at the Narrows would be a security risk during wartime—if the bridge were attacked, the harbor could be blocked. Ultimately engineers convinced the military that the harbor could be cleared in only 36 hours should a catastrophe occur.

Still, bridging the Narrows would take Robert Moses almost two decades to accomplish. Moreover, the project would rouse a wellspring of animosity—an animosity that Moses’s multiple public works projects generated with each passing year.

Battling the Inevitable
In 1946, the New York City Tunnel Authority was absorbed by the newly created Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), formerly the Triborough Bridge Authority, which, of course, Moses already headed. Moses, his power solidified, would chair the combined Authorities. Most important, Moses, who now controlled the purse strings of the TBTA, would more than a decade later dictate where the new bridge and its approaches would be set.

In 1946, Moses was more than two decades away from retirement and, among other things, beginning to rethink a Narrows crossing. Earlier attempts to build at the Narrows had failed. Moses favored a bridge rather than a tunnel because a bridge would be cheaper and quicker to build than a tunnel. A bridge would also accommodate more vehicles than a tunnel.

Many Staten Islanders welcomed the new bridge. For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Staten Island remained untouched by the immense changes in Brooklyn and Manhattan. With the opening of ferry service between Manhattan and Staten Island in the 1820s, breweries and dye works began to dot the Staten Island shoreline. Yet Staten Island remained a rural outpost. (Similarly, Queens had been a rural outpost at the turn of the twentieth century, before the opening of the Queensboro Bridge.) In much the same way that the Queensboro Bridge transformed Queens, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would transform Staten Island. Malls, industrial parks, and a thriving bedroom community of condominiums and private homes would come to Staten Island post-1964. For Staten Islanders, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge promised prosperity and a degree of tumult that some understandably found unwelcome.

For residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge promised pain and disruption. Approach lanes to the bridge would destroy 800 buildings and force some 7,000 residents from their homes. Gay Talese in The Bridge, an account of the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, details how despite the pleas of citizens to the City Council and the state legislature in Albany, a group of engineers working for Moses secretly plotted to obliterate a large chunk of Brooklyn.

Writes Talese: “. . . one of the engineers, to his horror, realized that his plan included the demolition of the home of his own mother-in-law. When he told her the news, she screamed and cried and demanded he change the plan. He told her he was helpless to do so; the bridge was inevitable. She died without forgiving him.”

Others had problems with the new bridge, too. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt believed that the bridge would ruin the beauty of New York’s skyline. Lewis Mumford, historian and design critic, railed at the bridge’s proposed $220 million cost. The final cost would be $320.1 million.

Because earlier attempts to build a bridge (and a tunnel) had been mostly talk and little action, many in Bay Ridge who were against the bridge thought plans for the new span would again fall through. They were wrong. They underestimated Moses’s power to bulldoze and build. Despite the civic pain, political battles, and a vociferous late-in-the-day “Save Bay Ridge” movement, the New York state legislature authorized construction in 1957. Construction began on August 13, 1959.

The Bridge Rises
The building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a double-decked bridge with twelve lanes, was an epic task. Construction involved the building of caissons, anchorages, and two towers; the stringing of cables; and the raising of a deck to complete the final span.

The first task was the construction of caissons: Since the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, caisson technology had greatly advanced. By the middle of the twentieth century, the process of dredging out muck and sand from the river’s base was automated. On the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, workers never entered the caisson and therefore did not suffer from the debilitating and sometimes fatal illness called the bends.

Following the dredging of the river’s base, two anchorages were set at each end of the Narrows. The anchorages, writes Darl Rastorfer in Six Bridges: The Legacy of Othmar H. Ammann, “are among the city’s most breathtaking spaces” and “an encounter with overwhelming scale.” The anchorages resist the extraordinary pull of the bridge’s suspension cables—each anchorage stands 130 feet high, 160 feet wide, and 300 feet long. To build them, 378,000 cubic yards of concrete were used.

Next to be set were the towers: Graceful and as high as a 70-story building, the towers contain 26,000 tons of steel, as much steel as was used in the Empire State Building. Thebridge’s four cables were then connected to the towers. Each cable is 7,205 feet long and 36 inches wide. The technology of cabling—unlike caisson technology—has changed little since the Roebling era. Wheels at the base of the bridge looped the cable wires up and over the towers as laborers, working on catwalks, secured the cables from anchorage to anchorage. The final phase of construction was the installation of an 81,000-ton deck. Approximately 12,000 men worked on the bridge; three men gave their lives to the bridge.

The Bridge Opens
Gay Talese, then a reporter for the New York Times, covered the bridge’s opening on November 21, 1964. Talese wrote that the bridge “reaches like a rainbow over the Narrows.”

Robert Moses served as master of ceremonies at the opening and introduced a bevy of celebrities, including Francis Cardinal Spellman, Mayor Robert Wagner, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Ammann was there, too, sitting quietly in the grandstand’s second row. Finally, Moses introduced Ammann.

“I now ask that one of the most significant great men of our time—modest, unassuming and too often overlooked on such grandiose occasions—stand and be recognized.”

Ammann, removing his hat, his hair blowing in the gentle wind, stood and looked at the crowd of 1,000 people.

“It may be that in the midst of so many celebrities,” Moses continued, “you don’t even know who he is. My friends, I ask that you now look upon the greatest living bridge engineer, perhaps of all time. A Swiss who has lived and labored magnificently 60 years in this country and is still active, the designer of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, respected throughout the world and regarded here with deep affection.”

Applause followed. But Moses, in his speechmaking, forgot to name Ammann. When Moses finally finished, Ammann silently sat down, and, according to Talese, was “again lost in the second row of the grandstand.” Ammann died one year later, in 1965. Three years later, in 1968, Moses, by then an unloved urban relic, was pushed into retirement by Governor Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay.

Robert Moses died in 1981 at age ninety-three.

Writes Anthony Flint in Wrestling with Moses:
His legacy would be 13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highway, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks, and dozens of new or renovated parks. He cleared 300 acres of city land and constructed towers that contained 28,400 new apartments. He built Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach and the Central Park Zoo.

By the time Moses was finished, scarcely a city street had not felt his touch. Yet despite Moses’s monumental accomplishments, his legacy remains controversial. One issue is certain, however: For nearly four decades, he was the relentless force behind the swiftly changing metropolis. But Moses’s legacy ran deeper. His often brutal bulldoze-and-build approach, for better or worse, was fancied and implemented by many city planners across America.

Read more about the bridge that inspired Antonio Masi’s art (featured above, Light Traffic) in New York’s Golden Age of Bridges, Paintings by Antonio Masi, Essays by Joan Marans Dim, Foreword by Harold Holzer.