Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lost in History vol. 57: Double your Cantilever, Double the Fun!

What’s worse than a NYC-obsessed nerd who gets super-excited about a slideshow lecture on the building of the Queensboro Bridge, held Monday at the Parks & Recs building on East 54th Street? An NYC-obsessed nerd who can correctly point out that the roof tiles used in the underside of the QBBridge, in the open-air marketplace underneath the Manhattan approach, are the exact same tiles used in the ceiling of the room where the lecture was taking place. To be fair, we’re talking about some pretty amazing tiles: Guastavino to be precise, the same kinds used in Ellis Island and Grand Central Terminal. But this lecture wasn’t about tiles (although you have to check out the Whispering Corners in Grand Central!), it was about bridges. Specifically, the Queensboro Bridge, built between 1903 and 1909 as the third of four bridges to span the East River.

The lecture was presented by the NYC Parks and Recs department, with Robert Singleton of the Greater Astoria Historical Society providing the first thirty minutes of history (essentially the bridge’s first hundred years); following Mr. Singleton, Judith Berdy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society spoke for an additional half-hour on the subject of trolley cars and railways from the Manhattan side of the QBBridge to points east.

The mighty Queensboro (note: first called the Blackwell’s Island bridge; then the 59th Street Bridge until after WWII: the dropping of “ugh” from “boro”) happened sometime in the 50s) is the only East River bridge that isn’t a suspension. This was because of the length that needing crossing (3700 feet, not counting the approaches, almost three times the length of the Brooklyn bridge), as well as the price (cantilever is cheaper than suspension, and the bridge was built during a rare moment of anti-Tammany honesty) and the space allowed (thinner too!). When the bridge was opened — 99 years ago from Sunday — it tremendously catalyzed the wide-open spaces of the decade-old borough of Queens, which until (and after) Great Consolidation of 1898 was simply a collection of outlying farms and local villages, strung together by postal and shipping roads. Once this bridge was opened up to the masses, the immigrants came soaring over to plant their feet in the rich Queens soil. Old timers (really old) from Queens will remark that the borough only has two time periods: B.B. and A.B. (Before & After Bridge).

A work of industrial beauty (unlike the hideous Williamsburg Bridge), the QBBridge used to have a mess of trolley cars running across the thing. At the start they were part of the elevated rail system, since the Second Avenue El ran right up to and across the bridge. There was a smaller looped system that brought passengers to the middle of the bridge, at which point they could take a passenger elevator down to Blackwell’s-cum-Welfare-cum-Roosevelt Island. This all changed with the construction of the “Upside-down Building,” placed immediately next to the bridge so that vehicles could drive straight onto the rooftop, and take freight elevators down to the island. The “Upside-down Building” was demolished in 1970, well after the Welfare Island bridge was built in 1953, establishing a direct land-link to the sad little island in the middle of the East River. There’s more story to tell about the QBBridge, but this is only the 99th anniversary – as they said in Ebbets Fields, “Wait Til Next Year!”

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