The Treasure From The Carpentry Shop

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Of particular importance, to begin with, is the fact that it is a complete record, and a complete record of almost any engineering feat of that day would be a major find. But this is the complete record of the Brooklyn Bridge, once the largest, most celebrated bridge on earth, “The Great Bridge,” the unprecedented, pioneering work that captured the heart of an entire era. Moreover, it is essential to understand what a complete record in this instance actually means. Since every component was custom-made, and very often a first of its kind, there is a drawing for every component, sometimes several, from the masonry of the towers down to a manhole cover.

And that is still only part of it. The bridge in the plans is infinitely more than the bridge that you see. Among the most magnificent drawings in the collection, for example, are those of the giant wooden caissons, the means by which the foundations of the bridge were built out of sight beneath the East River. Then there are drawings by the hundreds of machines large and small, various kinds of hoisting apparatus, compressed-air pumps, cable-making equipment, every last device needed to do the work, again most of it custombuilt and virtually all of it long since vanished. The High Victorian train terminals that once stood at either end of the bridge, the bridge trains that for years shunted commuters to and fro—these also are to be found in the collection, every detail beautifully delineated.

The drawings are also signed, not by Roebling only. A grand total of sixty-four different draftsmen and/or assistant engineers are represented, according to Barbara Millstein’s study, and the names that figure most prominently are men about whom we happen to know quite a lot. These are not anonymous works in other words; nor are Wilhelm Hildenbrand or George W. McNulty, William Paine, Francis Collingwood, or C. C. Martin, to mention only a few, names without faces, personality, stories of their own, as we know from the written record. Some were among the very best in their profession, and each played a specific, identifiable part in the fourteen-year-long ordeal of building the bridge.

Wilhelm Hildenbrand, who did the major pictorial renderings, will serve as an example. Born in Germany, he was still in his twenties when work on the plans commenced in 1867, which made him one of the youngest of what was to be an amazingly young staff (average age, thirty-one). Hildenbrand had been hired initially by old John A. Roebling, the German-born genius who designed the bridge but died before it was begun and thereby left the task of building it to his son, Washington, then thirty-two. Hildenbrand was powerfully built, clean shaven, and an intimate of the Roeblings, never people to take friendships lightly. (He was even party to some of John A.’s spiritualist seances in the big house at Trenton.) Before joining the Roeblings, he had designed—at all of twenty-two years of age—the great arched roof of the train shed for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new Grand Central Depot. In the course of his first several years under Washington Roebling, he did all the detailed masonry plans, as well as the architectural designs for the New York approach (that is, the long span leading to the New York tower). As time went on, he was responsible for most of the mathematical calculations; he worked out the details for the superstructure of the roadway. He wrote a book on cable making (published in 1873). In all he gave more than sixteen years of his life to the creation of the bridge, as much nearly as Roebling himself, and in his subsequent career he built, among other things, the Pike’s Peak Railway and a large suspension bridge of his own design at Mapimi, Mexico.

The drawings by Washington Roebling number some five hundred, and of this incomparable man suffice it to say here that he looms ever larger the more we learn about him. Soldier, engineer, industrialist, musician, botanist, mineralogist, paleontologist, geologist, a brave and decent, a genuinely heroic figure, he is the builder of the bridge who, because of physical and emotional breakdowns, directed it all, year by year, from an upstairs room on Brooklyn Heights. His was the commanding intellect.

But then, in the last analysis, one comes to something in these drawings that is impossible to catalogue, that has little or nothing to do with any quantity of biographical or technical background we might compile. And it is this that matters most. It is the incredible care and concentration you feel in even the least of these drawings, the pride, the obvious love—love for materials, love for elegance in design, love of mathematics, of line, of light and shadow, of majestic scale, and, yes, love of drawing—this passion in combination with an overriding insistence on order, on quality, that we of this very different century must inevitably stand in awe before, however many men we put on the moon. You feel what these people felt for their work and you can’t help but be drawn to them.