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The Treasure From The Carpentry Shop

July 2024
11min read


brooklyn bridge
In 1969, a young civil engineer from the NYC Department of Transportation found Washington A. Roebling's original drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, including this one of the Brooklyn side caisson. Brooklyn Bridge Drawings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives


Early in 1969, because a bit of hardware on the Brooklyn Bridge had begun to show signs of wear after nearly ninety years, a young civil engineer working for the City of New York’s Department of Transportation was delegated to hunt up the original drawings of the item. The “trunnion,” as it is called, is a steel joint assembly, or gudgeon, about eighty of which are used to connect the vertical cables of the Brooklyn Bridge to the roadway out at the center of the river span where the greatest movement occurs. It is not an especially complicated or interesting device and it need concern us no longer, but like every other part and piece of the bridge, it had been custom-made to begin with and so could be replaced only by remaking it from scratch. Hence the need for the drawings.

What he found was one of the most remarkable treasures in the whole history of the building art, totaling some ten thousand original blueprints and drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Francis P. Valentine, the man sent for the drawings, was then twenty-nine years old, large and bearded, a native New Yorker and resident of Brooklyn who has been rightly described by his friend David Hupert as “an absolutely dedicated public servant.” His instructions were to go to the department’s carpentry shop at 352 Kent Avenue, a small, nondescript brick building beneath the Brooklyn end of the Williamsburg Bridge, and to look through the files that were in storage there. He was advised to wear old clothes, but he had no idea what to expect.

What he found, what he saw the morning he first walked into the shop, was one of the most remarkable treasures in the whole history of the building art, a collection like none other, totaling some ten thousand original blueprints and drawings, and what is so amazing is that for all the bewildering disorder they were in, the layers of dust and filth, he sensed almost at once the extent of their value. And in this he was the rare exception, for the drawings had been known to others in the department for nobody knows how long. Kept mainly for possible reference needs, for just such emergencies as the trunnion problem, they had been gone through, in part, by perhaps as many as twenty or thirty people at one time or another. Yet the idea that they might be worth something, that many were, in their way, magnificent works of art, not to mention historic documents of great consequence, had thus far failed to dawn on anyone of authority. In fact, one official, the engineer in charge of all East River bridges, previously had ordered that the drawings be thrown out because they were taking up too much space, and this would have been their fate had it not been for the carpenters who worked in the shop—William Jeblick and Joseph Vecchio, among others—who decided it might be best if they simply ignored the order and who thus each deserve a medal. As Jeblick remarks, “It would have been a shame to see such things go to the dump, when they should have been in a museum.”

Most of the drawings were packed into huge wooden file drawers, giant chests as old as the bridge itself, but hundreds of others were piled in rolls on top of these chests, and on shelves, tables, every which way, wherever there was space. The light was poor and the dirt and dust were “unbelievable,” as Frank Valentine remembers. “Every time I pulled open a drawer a cloud of dust came out in my face. None of it looked like much at first, mostly blueprints, what you’d expect. Then after maybe four or five drawers, I began finding wonderful hand drawings, some of them enormous. I noticed many of these had WAR written on the bottom and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to write ‘war’ on the bottom of a drawing. I saw the drawings were dated—I realized they were a hundred years old —and I thought, ‘My God, what am I looking at here?’

“Then it struck me, WAR, that’s Washington A. Roebling, the engineer who built the Brooklyn Bridge—these were Roebling’s own signed drawings!”

After going through approximately seventy drawers, he found the trunnion drawings he had been sent for, but in the weeks following he kept insisting to his superiors that he had found—rediscovered—something of far greater importance and that steps must be taken to preserve the collection. “The people who had seen the drawings before never seemed to realize that they included Roebling originals,” he explains. “They had no idea of the extent of the collection, never knew, for instance, that it included a profile of the bridge, a drawing mind you, measuring 30 feet.”

But presently Valentine was told by his immediate boss, the late Edward Backus (”a wonderful, wonderful man"), that if the drawings meant that much to him then he might take a day or so a month to keep going through them, to determine what all was there.

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From the Brooklyn Bridge Drawings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives

This was still in 1969, the year of the landing on the moon, when a technological achievement like the Brooklyn Bridge seemed just a little quaint, a relic from a different world, let alone a different age, as I know from personal experience, for I, too, at that time, was digging my way through another long-neglected Roebling collection—letters, memoranda, personal diaries, scrapbooks, and the like, all pertaining to the bridge—which had been in storage for years, unsorted, uncatalogued, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. Still, the more Valentine worked with the drawings the more fascinated he became—and determined to get them out of the carpentry shop and into safekeeping. He called the Long Island Historical Society to see if anyone there could advise him what to do. He called the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Modern Art. He described what he had found. “Nobody seemed interested. Nobody felt it was important. They’d ask me how many drawings there were and when I said I thought maybe ten thousand, they’d right away say that was more than they could ever handle. I couldn’t get anybody even to come see what I was talking about. And back at the office a lot of people gave me the impression that I was out of my mind.”

This was still in 1969, the year of the landing on the moon, when a technological achievement like the Brooklyn Bridge seemed just a little quaint, a relic from a different world.

He tried several newspapers, and at length, in 1973, the Trenton Times sent somebody over to the carpentry shop and ran an article. (Trenton was home for the Roeblings, home also of the Roebling wire company, and 1973 was the ninetieth anniversary of the completion of the bridge.) Still, nothing happened, not until a year or so later when Valentine discovered that David Hupert worked at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Until then Hupert had been only another of his neighbors in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a nice enough fellow who played on the same softball team. For some reason he can’t explain, Valentine had never known what Hupert did for a living, but once he found out, things began to happen. Hupert not only came to the carpentry shop (“I just stood there in utter amazement,” he remembers) but with Valentine’s help selected sixty-five of what he regarded as the most aesthetically striking drawings of the lot, then rounded up the necessary funds to have these properly cleaned and mounted for an exhibition at the Whitney’s downtown gallery. Most of the work on the larger drawings was done by the head “paper conservator” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Merritt Safford. A century of accumulated dirt had to be removed—mold, mildew, and thousands upon thousands of tiny, dark specks, roach feces, every one of which had to be picked off painstakingly by hand. The cost of preparing the sixty-five drawings was fifteen thousand dollars.

The show, when it opened in May, 1976—the first public display of the drawings—was a huge success. The longer it was up, the greater the attendance, which is just the reverse of the usual pattern. Remembering the response, Hupert says, “No show we ever did had such an outpouring of affection, all for that bridge.” Still, there was not money enough to do a catalogue—only a poster was published, a reproduction of the original thirteen-foot “presentation” profile which appears here as a gatefold—and the drawings on display represented but a tiny fraction of the whole, too tiny even to qualify as the tip of the iceberg.

Interest in the rest of the collection, all still at the carpentry shop, had become most intense meantime. The Municipal Archives and the Brooklyn Museum had gotten wind long since of what Hupert was up to, were highly displeased about it, and each commenced to lay claim to the collection. The drawings belonged to the city, insisted the Municipal Archives, and so therefore the drawings belonged in the Municipal Archives. The Brooklyn Museum argued that it was better equipped to give the drawings proper care and housing, and to put them on public view, and that after all it was Brooklyn’s bridge. More important, the Brooklyn Museum also sent an associate curator, Barbara Millstein, to appraise the situation at the carpentry shop, and if there is a point in the story at which one might say that the drawings were at last “saved,” this is it. For Mrs. Millstein’s commitment to the collection was to be unrelenting. Over the next several years, assisted by a volunteer co-worker, Gail Guillet, she did a thorough inventory of the entire collection, complete with descriptive data on each and every item, a simply staggering task. And while ultimately, in 1976, her museum lost out to the Municipal Archives as the rightful proprietor of the collection, no one, not Frank Valentine or David Hupert or anyone at the Municipal Archives, would ever contest Mrs. Millstein’s hard-earned standing as the authority on the drawings, and it will be the Brooklyn Museum that puts on a mammoth exhibit of three to four hundred of them in 1983, in honor of the bridge’s one hundredth anniversary.

The Municipal Archives, meantime, has physical possession of the treasure (the drawings were finally removed from the carpentry shop in 1976, seven years after Valentine first found them), and at this writing grants amounting to three hundred thousand dollars have been obtained to assure their safekeeping.

But what of the drawings themselves after all? What, finally, is the real value of this extraordinary mountain of paper?

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More plans for the Brooklyn caisson. Brooklyn Bridge Drawings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives

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.

But what of the drawings themselves after all? What, finally, is the real value of this extraordinary mountain of paper?

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.

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Front view of a water tube steam boiler used on the bridge. Brooklyn Bridge Drawings Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

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.

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.

As Frank Valentine or Barbara Millstein will assure you, the drawings are priceless, and like the bridge, they are not for sale.

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.


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