The Treasure From The Carpentry Shop

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Present-day engineering or architectural renderings look very little like these. If in a modern drawing, for example, rivets need be shown, a few suffice, the rest are indicated with a small x , and a marginal note specifies the number required. In these from the last century, as Frank Valentine likes to point out, “If there were 140 rivets in a connection, every rivet was drawn, and every one showing how the light would strike it.” In drawings such as those of the caissons, every bolt and brace is shown; even the grain of the wood is rendered meticulously in watercolors. In part, but only in part, this can be explained by the fact that many who worked on the bridge were illiterate, or at least so far as reading plans, but as superb craftsmen they could build just about anything if it were pictured exactly as it was meant to look, exactly as it was supposed to be put together.

They who made these drawings were a different breed from our present-day technicians, that certainly is unmistakable, and possibly the most significant difference can be seen in their regard for the total setting in which the bridge was to stand. In these drawings the bridge is never viewed as an isolated entity, the sole focus of interest. It is not the bridge alone that is portrayed in exquisite detail: it is the geological strata through which the foundations must be dug; it is all the little street-scapes over which the bridge will rise, each building done with careful attention to its actual size and character, not merely “suggested” with a perfunctory pencil flourish. One drawing is devoted solely to the mast height of the different sailing ships that will be passing beneath the bridge.

For a long time historians have looked upon the bridge as a kind of grand but solitary redemptive symbol rising out of the Tweed years, the Grant years, standing alone and above it all, literally and figuratively. Now they must look also at the drawings. Had the bridge succumbed to the wrecking ball by our day, and we were left with only the drawings to go by, we would still have to conclude that that was no ordinary era. The easy, hackneyed labels for post-Civil War America, the talk only of Gilded Age greed and frippery, won’t do, not in the face of such work.

What the monetary value of the drawings may be is impossible to say. I have heard estimates ranging from a million dollars to twice, even three times that. The figures may be silly. Nobody knows; in any event, the guesses are all academic. As Frank Valentine or Barbara Millstein will assure you, the drawings are priceless, and like the bridge, they are not for sale.