Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Merritt Parkway

As I prepare to leave Connecticut and return to Pennsylvania, I think of some of my favorite things in the state. One of them is the Merritt Parkway, a highway built in the Depression that links New York City with the prosperous Connecticut suburbs. The U.S. is full of roads, but only few manage to capture the artistic imagination. Route 1 (0ne of the oldest roads linking Florida to Maine) and Route 66 (linking Illinois to California) are perhaps the most celebrated of early highways. Other roads take poetic importance at a regional scale. The Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) that runs through Philadelphia, for example, inspired the song "Expressway to your Heart" (1967), an early hit for the Philadelphia Sound.

The Merritt, the Taconic, the Saw Mill, the Hutchinson, and the Palisades belong to a family of roads built around the 1930s and best known to New Yorker commuters. They are the earliest highways dealing with mass transport and they represent the zenith of American highway design, the generation preceding Eisenhower's interstate system (1950s). Architecturally, the Merritt is most interesting because of its bridges. Beginning in 1935, each bridge was individually designed by George Dunkelberger, an under-appreciated architect. Dunkelberger was born in Camden, N.J. and studied at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he began a practice in Hartford, Conn., where he built mostly residential architecture. The company collapsed during the Great Depression, and Dunkelberger was forced to take a job with the Connecticut Highway Department as a draftsman in the cartography division in 1933. Two years later he was senior draftsman in the bridge division and took over the design of the Merritt. Collectively, Dunkelberger's 68 bridges are an encyclopedia of styles, most of the Art Deco and neoclassical, while a few were directly modelled on well-known architectural works, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, H. H. Richardson's Ames Lodge, or McKim, Mead and White's Memorial Bridge. As far as I know, Dunkelberger's work is the first example of stage-setting experiences from the vantage of the moving car at 35-40 mph. Some of the intended drama may be lost to us today as cars have dangerously sped up. The financial limitations of the Depression forced the engineers to shorten the ramps and tighten the parkway's course. At an increased 50-55 mph speed limit today, the road has become a thrilling race course for the aggressive New York commuters with SUVs and BMWs pushing 75-80 mph. But perhaps the Merritt was never idyllic. In Sophie's Choice, the novel I've been reading this summer (see here and here), William Styron has Nathan drive like a madman (80 mph) on this "arboreal" highway and be stopped by the police: "WELCOME TO CONNECTICUT/DRIVE SAFELY" (pp. 382-389).

Although not evident from behind the wheel, the Merritt's bridges are made of steel covered by concrete. Stone dressing was the preferred choice, but the Depression required cheaper solutions. All the Hutchinson Parkway bridges, on the other hand, are clad in stone, but the Hutch was conceived before the Depression and its developer, Robert Moses, was not in a financial pinch. The reinforced concrete of the Merritt was poured into plaster molds at a workshop in Long Island and brought to the site, where it was fastened to the metal structure. Dunkelberger devised brilliant ways to form the material, to play with the aggregate's texture and to avoid the discoloration caused by water. These days, it is almost impossible to slow down and pause on any individual bridge. They brilliantly pass above and highlight the landscape.

In the 1980s, architects like James Sterling theorized on the effects of the car in the scenography of architecture, leading to postmodernism (and lots of video art centered around Los Angeles). As far as I know, none of the 1980s theorists appreciated the work of Dunkelberger as the forefather of such experiments. The 1920s architectural avant-garde spoke of the car as a polemical vehicle; figures like Le Corbusier designed entire utopias around the highway (Obus A Project in Algiers, etc.) But those were mostly theoretical projects. Dunkelberger, an unassuming draftsman in Connecticut's Highway Department, approached the very same modern problem of speed in a concrete way. His eclecticism may have been anathema to the modernist avant-garde, but should appear as a prophet to the postmodernist drama. Sadly, he is forgotten. I have even heard people claiming that each bridge was designed by a different architect. Bruce Radde's The Merritt Parkway (New Haven, 1993) offers the authoritative coverage of the project. Radde's book has provided all the information in this posting. A further study, however, seems necessary with detailed analysis of all 68 bridges.

If you have never traveled on the Merritt, you can see visit its official website here. There is even a museum dedicated to its history here. The map above shows the parkway as proposed and was published in the Bridgeport Post (May 20, 1935).


Sophia from Kitchen Caravan said...

Hi Kostis,
This was a very interesting post. As a Hartford native that grew up driving on the Merritt Parkway, I can say that I will drive a bit slower and pay more attention the next time I am heading to the city. I sent your blog link to some friends and family. Sophie's Choice is one of my favorite books of all time- Nathan was one of the strongest characters I have ever read about.

Nicholas said...

Great post! I wish I had read it before I was up in the area last weekend. Perhaps next time I can take a new look at the Merritt

Welcome to Pennsylvania!


millinerd said...

My wife and I loved this post. But no mention of the Blue Ridge Parkway?

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States