Revolutionary Lifestyles

Corporate Deals

Constructing Class

Chief Engineers

An Icon Is Born

Appropriating Control

The People's Bridge

Bridge as Image



Bridge Timeline

Roebling Timeline

Bridge Statistics

Printable Text

Appropriating Control

In a century of intense change—in lifestyles, business, labor, technology, and the home—a sense control or at least the illusion of it became a highly sought commodity as Americans scrambled to find order in the chaos. As cultural historian Thomas Schlereth observes while explaining the Victorian compulsion for statistic, "the hierarchical and organizational control prompted by the rapid incorporation of America touched the daily life" of all classes, genders, and ethnic groups (xiii). While disputing authority over various aspects of the bridge, however, the citizens of Brooklyn and New York only found common ground, ironically showing the peaceful coexistence of incorporation and conflict.

John Roebling be found order in philosophy. According to Trachtenberg, after coming to America, John "absorbed transcendentalism and spiritualism of Swedenborg, Channing, Emerson, Henry James, and Andrew Jackson Davis, the 'Poughkeepsie Seer' and 'Clairvoyant'" (Trachtenberg, Bridge 60). He borrowed pieces of each, formulated an abstract, individualized belief system, then applied it to his East River crossing. His design not only conquered the waterway and organized the hundreds of thousands who crossed it each day, but as previously suggested, his towers dictated how New Yorkers and Brooklynites alike should embrace the future. Determining who owned the actual structure, however, proved more difficult.

The New York Bridge Company unquestionably was in possession of the project from its inception, but over the course of fourteen years, the trustees grudgingly began to share this right with the two municipalities. The more power granted the two cities, the more they tried to steal. In 1883, just months before the opening ceremony, new and younger bridge company trustees—politicians with constituents to impress but little technical knowledge of bridge building—led an attempted coup against Washington Roebling. Mayor Seth Low of Brooklyn complained: "I am convinced that at every point there is a weakness in the management of the Brooklyn Bridge. The engineering part of the structure—the most important—is in the hands of a sick man" (qtd. in McCullough 449). Washington's unwavering dedication to the project, however, convinced the majority of trustees otherwise, and in a vote of 10 to 7, he stayed.

Architect Montgomery Schuyler led a similar insurrection against the Roeblings, though he waged his war on the pages of Harper's Weekly rather than in a corporate boardroom. On May 26, 1843, just two days after the bridge opened, Harper's Weekly printed an essay in which Schuyler decries Roebling's lack of architectural flair, deeming the bridge "a woeful lack of expression." An architecturally sound structure, he argues, while aesthetically pleasing, also would have indicated its utility in the very design. Centuries from now, when the Brooklyn Bridge span crumbles and the towers stand alone in the river, an unschooled traveler will be left with no indication of their purpose. Schuyler writes of one tower: "With its flat top and its level coping, indicating that the whole was meant to be evenly loaded, it would seem to be the base of a missing superstructure rather than what it is." An architect would have advised the engineer to create "a crest of roof, its double slope following the line of the cable which it shelters." Schuyler accuses Roebling of "architectural barbarism," but his complaint is based on a feeling of powerlessness. The article, titled "Bridge as Monument," recognizes the Brooklyn Bridge for the icon it will become—an icon built without architectural input and for which he can take no credit. Thus, in voicing his criticism, Schuyler gains a sense of empowerment.

Schuyler's commentary highlights a poignant aspect of the bridge's evolving cultural function: it offers all, regardless of their economic background, education level, or social status, equal opportunity to critique, condemn, or just marvel. The bridge is literally and figuratively larger than any individual or corporate board, and it slowly pervades into all aspects of life, uninhibited. As Mumford explains:

So it's the growing consensus, visible through people's acts and then gradually seeps into thoughts and becomes part of the texture of their lives. It goes into pictures, it goes into poems, and before you know it, there it is, inescapably grand and solid and indestructible, the way ordinary works of art are not (Burns).

Although the original purpose rests in alleviating the difficulties of crossing the East River, the bridge proved into a presences of greater import than who collects the tolls on either side, or whose aesthetic perspective proves more accurate. It is a part of life.

In 1883, however, even its most ardent supporters never could have envisioned the status the Brooklyn Bridge was to assume. Thus, in the shadow of its arches, the trustees laid plans for its inauguration, "The People's Day," and hoped that in offering it as a token to the people of New York and Brooklyn, they could demonstrate to all that it was theirs to give.

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