Friday, June 13, 2014

The Up-Close Beauty of the Queensboro Bridge

When we moved to New York, I had an instant prejudice against the Queensboro Bridge. After all, it's a cantilever bridge. And cantilever bridges are ugly and dangerous.

That's the lesson we were taught with the Bay Bridge. The suspension portion of that span is majestic and sturdy (even if it lives in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge); the cantilever half was an eyesore and had to be torn down because it proved unsafe in the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was replaced, naturally, with a suspension bridge.

The old span will take years to be fully demolished. So now it sits beside its gleaming new replacement, looking all the more pathetic.

Photo courtesy of Demolition News.

Anyway, back to New York. After two years of living and working near the Queensboro Bridge, I find I'm warming to it.

Sure, it looks like it was built with an Erector Set — with none of the minimalist grace of a suspension bridge. Forget about actually driving on it either: Depending on what onramp you use, you may be forced to drive in what appears to be a breakdown lane and stay in it the whole way across.

The span is actually a double-cantilever bridge, with one crossing the river on each side of Roosevelt Island. From a distance, the look is purely utilitarian. Also, what the heck are we supposed to call the thing? The 59th Street Bridge? The Queensboro? Ed Koch? There seems to be less consensus on this than any landmark in New York. (Officially, it's the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.)

But when you get close up — something that's easily done on the Roosevelt Island tram — the Queensboro Bridge reveals its charms.

The architect Henry Hornbostel designed the bridge's decorative touches, which are surprisingly ornate at close range. The bridge opened in 1909, after all, which was the heyday of the City Beautiful movement.

It has masonry towers with domes at the top, and its latticework is crowned with beautiful finials.

Photo courtesy Wired New York.

But some of the bridge's original features are no longer intact. Below you see the base of a lamp that was removed in 1975 so the Roosevelt Island tram could be built.

This gorgeously intricate object is now sitting in an inauspicious spot next to the tram station on the Roosevelt Island side. Before that, the lamppost base was lost for more than 35 years. (Someone found it in 2011.) Given the turmoil of 1970s New York, it was probably pretty easy to lose stuff.

The good news: This piece of history will soon be relocated to the front of Roosevelt Island's Visitor Center Kiosk, and perhaps more people will stop to reflect on the Queensboro Bridge's hidden beauties.