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George Washington Bridge

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Home Stony Creek Granite Sites Bridges George Washington Bridge

George Washington Bridge

Since the 1600’s when the first European settlers built their first settlements in the colonies, there had been no way of reaching New York City from New Jersey without taking a ferry over the Hudson River.  It was an issue plaguing both New Jersey and New York officials for almost 300 years.  The governors of New York and New Jersey decided, in 1906, to create an Interstate bridge Commission, whose sole purpose was to build bridges over the Hudson to connect the two states.  The commission spent nearly 20 years reviewing designs and deciding where/how to construct the bridges, finally deciding on a design.  Construction finally began on October 21, 1927 under the direction of Chief Engineer Othmar Ammann.
 Selecting where to build the bridge was difficult.  At first, the original Chief Engineer, Gustav Lindenthal, wanted to build the bridge so that it connected went between New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan.  This choice appeared to be a great idea, as it would allow the rail lines in New Jersey to easily connect to New York City and all of New England.  But, Lindenthal’s apprentice, Othmar Ammann, argued that this was a bad idea, as it would create more commuter traffic and construction in the already very-busy midtown Manhattan.  Ammann thought it would be a better idea to build the bridge between 179th street in upper Manhattan and Fort Lee, NJ.  This location would allow for cars and light rail to travel, but it would also be high enough off the river that large ships could travel underneath.  Ammann also saw this location as more economical, in that they would not need to deal with the businesses of midtown Manhattan.  Although on his own, Ammann got the support of the newly elected governor of New Jersey, Georg Silzer and, in 1925, got approval from both New York and New Jersey to build.  Ammann was the chief engineer and designer.
 With Ammann selected as the chief designer, it wasn’t long before the Port Authority called in the help of Cass Gilbert, a famous architect, to consult and assist in the designing process.  Gilbert had spent much time in Europe, traveling around and soaking in architectural designs he later planned on using in his designs.  It wasn’t until 1895 when Gilbert was selected to design the new capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, that his architectural career took off.  Cass Gilbert’s greatest creation was the Woolworth Building in New York City.  Constructed in 1913, it would be the world’s tallest building for over 10 years.  Cass Gilbert would also be responsible for many other important buildings of the 20th century, including the Wall Street Building, the NY County Lawyers Association building and the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
With the approval for the bridge granted, Ammann was posed with a challenge.  The completed Hudson River Bridge would span 3,500 feet, nearly twice the length of the largest main span in the world at the time, The Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Michigan, which spanned a mere 1,850 feet.  In response, Amman proposed the idea of changing the way suspension bridges are built.  Ammann suggested that by the weight of bridge and traffic combined would be enough to prevent the bridge from rocking during heavy winds without the need for trusses.  However, Ammann decided to design the bridge so a second level of the bridge could be built with trusses, if need may be.
 Two systems of suspension were considered for the Hudson River Bridge.  One, known as the eyebar network, used thin metal bars that are connected at the cables.  The other, known as the spun-cable system, used hundreds of thousands of spun wires that hung over the towers.  Ammann considered both systems to be efficient and effective, so he held a sort of auction for who wanted to construct the bridge, granting it to the lowest bidder, or whoever would perform the construction for cheapest.  The job eventually went to John A Roebling and Sons in 1931 whom used the cable-spun suspension design. 
John A. Roebling, the founder, was the engineer who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, which spanned the East River.  Although he died due to the aftermath of having his foot ran over by a ferry, his son and daughter, Washington and Emily Roebling, continued his work on the Brooklyn Bridge and finished it.  His second son, Ferdinand, expanded on his father’s business in wire rope, although it was his older brother, Washington, who was President of the company once Ammann came with his proposed idea for a bridge spanning the Hudson River.
 With the design of the suspension system decided on, it was time to select how to design the towers from which the cables would be supported.  Ideas spanned from using concrete-encased steel towers to using very thin steel towers.  One of the more popular choices was the idea of using steel towers coated with granite, which would allow for restaurants and observation decks.  Although it made sense to from a business standpoint, public opinion was against the idea, due to the hard economic times of the Great Depression, and Ammann determined the steel towers could sufficiently hold the bridge without assistance.  Ammann also concluded that, without the granite-casing, the bridge itself would cost $1 million less to construct, which would be equivalent to saving $150 million today.
 The Hudson River Bridge made history with being the first construction project in New York to use a building crew entirely made up of professionals.  Since both New York and New Jersey were contributing towards the construction of the bridge, construction went relatively quickly, as there was a competitive spirit between the two states to be finished with their tower first.  The cables were spun in a record 209 working days using only 300 men.
 The bridge was completed on October 25, 1931, 8 months ahead of schedule and only costing $59 Million .  Upon completion, it broke the record for longest main span in the world and held that title until May 27, 1937 with the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Although initially called the Hudson River Bridge, the name was eventually decided on as the George Washington Memorial Bridge, in honor of the United States’ first President, as the bridge was built between Fort Washington and Fort Lee, both of which were fortified positions used by Washington during his failed attempt to prevent the British from occupying NYC during the Revolutionary War.  The Port Authority deemed it a great name, as they saw the bridge to be a dream realized and a testament to the willpower of man; ideals the Port Authority believed Washington stood for.
 After World War II, there was an extreme shortage of housing for the returning veterans.  As such, a plan to create cheap houses in the countryside was set into motion and the suburban housing project was born.  But, unlike the cities, the suburban neighborhoods weren’t usually within walking distance of the workplace of the workers.  The people of America needed a cheap way to reach the cities, and it wasn’t long before cars became the popular choice for those workers.
In response to the booming growth of the car, the Port Authority decided to increase capacity from a six-lane bridge to an eight-lane bridge, but it still wasn’t enough.  As the demand for more lanes became more apparent, the Port Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority met to discuss further ideas of how to increase traffic flow into Manhattan.  They considered building a bridge at the original site of the Hudson River Bridge, between Midtown Manhattan and New Jersey, but ultimately decided to add another six-lane level to the George Washington Bridge.
 In 1959, construction began for the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge.  As per Ammann’s original design, the lower deck was built with stiffening trusses to keep the lower deck stable from torsion.  One of the more impressive feats of the construction of the lower deck was that there was no need to shut down the upper deck during construction.  The lower deck construction cost $20 million .  To this date, the George Washington Bridge is the only 14-lane suspension bridge in the world.
 In 1977, the George Washington Bridge saw its first major renovation project.  The Port Authority decided it was best to replace the then-concrete deck of the bridge with steel roadway sections.  Each of the roadway sections were created and paved prior to installation, so once they were in place, they would be safe for drivers to use.  Construction was done at night, one lane at a time.  As a result, the bridge would only have one lane of traffic blocked at night and would be fully functional by rush hour.  The project saw one of the first usages of orthotropic deck replacement of a suspension bridge.  An orthotropic deck is a deck which comprises a steel plate which is either stiffened longitudinally or transversely, which allows for both the bearing of vehicular loads and to help the bridge’s overall load-bearing capabilities, making the bridge stronger as a whole.  The project was completed in 1978; merely a year after construction began.
 In 2002, the Port Authority began working on chipping away the old lead-based paint covering the towers and the underside of the upper deck.  In its place, the workers applied a three-coat paint system that would better protect the coloring of the bridge.  The project was completed in 2006, costing $85 million.
 Today, the George Washington Bridge has several tourist features, despite the fact that it was never constructed with granite to incorporate observation decks and restaurants.  The George Washington Bridge was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in October 24, 1981.  In 2000, the Port Authority completed a project to illuminate the towers of the bridge to honor holidays and other important memorial services, such as on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  Also, on major Federal holidays, such as President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Columbus Day, the bridge holds the largest free-flying American flag in the world.  The flag, in total, is 90 feet by 60 feet, weighing 450 pounds.
 For more information on the George Washington Bridge, refer to the links below:



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