The Gray Puzzle
Personal Reflections on a Historic Bridge at Fifty
I’ll always feel a little bad for Fort Wadsworth. The Revolutionary War fort on Staten’s Island East Shore may feature some important history, but I gave it little thought when I passed through on a crisp November morning. The fort was simply my lookout for seeing the main attraction in the harbor.
How can a crumbling old battery compete with the modern miracle standing above it? My gaze was inevitably drawn to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge — up, up, up to the tops of the 700-foot-tall towers, then along the 14,000-foot bridge span stretching across the Narrows of New York Harbor into Brooklyn. Everything under the bridge sits in its shadow.
I began snapping pictures, aiming for a multi-angled, composite view of the structure. I figured this, the longest suspension span in the Americas and at one time the longest in the world, deserved around two dozen images, even if they were taken by a hack with a borrowed camera. I got coverage of the major sections — the Staten Island Tower; the Brooklyn Tower; the nearest anchorage, containing 171,000 cubic yards of concrete; the upper and lower decks; and the four cables, each a yard thick and 7,205 feet long.
I only saw a handful of souls at Fort Wadsworth during my time walking around the Staten Island end of the bridge, peering up at the decks from below and taking wide shots from the north and the south along the harbor shore. I loved the solitude and the chance to think about the bridge and how it came to be, my reflection framed by the vivid narrative of Gay Talese’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, re-released in October to commemorate the Verrazano’s fiftieth anniversary.
And I tried to imagine my grandfather, responsible for overseeing the design team’s role on the Verrazano, over the course of five long years walking the grounds and supervising the work of the builders.
At one point a truck crossing overhead impatiently honked at the vehicle in front of it, shaking me out of a trance. It reminded me that this wonder, like any human-made thing, dissolves into the daily backdrop. Groundbreaking engineering aside, this is a public utility, a commuter path from here to there as much as it is a site to explore. As a visitor from Philly, I had the time to look and admire; the motorists above me had to get where they were going. (And as any New Yorker will lament, westbound drivers face the added pain of a fifteen-dollar toll.)
With my visit to the bridge completed, I got in my car and proceeded across the Verrazano into Brooklyn. After finding a place to park, I advanced on foot to the second shrine of my pilgrimage. This was the first time I would walk the Brooklyn Bridge footpath into Manhattan.
Compared to the serenity at Fort Wadsworth, the scene was circus-like, but I found some reflective quiet even in the midst of dozens of other pilgrims, like me lured to this historic nexus above the East River. Approaching the Brooklyn tower and its complex web of diagonal cables, I thought, yes, this is the Americana moment I envisioned it to be. After passing under the Manhattan tower, I paused, having a good view of the new One World Trade Center. When I reached the “Welcome to Manhattan” sign, I doubled back to Brooklyn.
This wasn’t a typical outing for me. I know close to nothing about bridges and have hardly devoted any time appreciating them. But I figured I owed it to the family connection I had to these two particular bridges. They were among several impressive projects on the engineering résumé of Nomer Gray, a Senior Partner at Amman & Whitney. On the Brooklyn Bridge, he was a leading engineering authority, and for the construction of the Verrazano, which occurred between 1959 and 1964, he was “Partner-in-Charge of field activities,” a vague title that didn’t really answer my questions. What did he do exactly? (I never had the opportunity to talk to him about it in person, having been born two years after he died.)
Two decades separated the engineer’s work on those two famous bridges. In the 1940s, he conducted a two-year survey of the Brooklyn Bridge to determine its structural integrity and load-bearing capacity. The results of the survey informed the plan on expanding the Brooklyn Bridge to six car lanes.
It’s Nomer Gray’s later work on the Verrazano that is a special point of pride for his descendants. My parents, cousins, brothers, and I have the same framed print of the bridge in our homes. I always hope a visitor to my house asks about it, the only prompt I need to start bragging.
But it’s hard to boast properly when you don’t have the complete story. It was time I got a better handle on Nomer Gray, accomplished bridge engineer, and the chapter of his life as “Partner-in-Charge of field activities.”
When my mom recently dug up materials from my grandfather’s career and handed me a short book marking the bridge’s grand opening, I couldn’t find his name. There was, of course, plenty of love for the starring cast, including master planner Robert Moses, and the legendary bridge engineer and my grandpa’s boss, Othmar Ammann. In other publications, I saw that the name next to “Construction Engineer” was not my grandfather’s.
That brought me to Gay Talese and his new expanded edition of The Bridge, which drew from five years of his reporting on the $320 million construction project for the New York Times. I figured the odds were good that the Amman & Whitney team, at least its senior members, would receive some coverage in Talese’s account, and that the tiny thread of my grandfather’s contribution would be weaved into the larger narrative of the bridge’s construction.
I scanned the book completely but did not find “Nomer Gray.” Ironically, it’s to Talese’s credit that I hit a dead end. I didn’t find what I was looking for because with this book, as with most of his writing, he tells the less obvious story. He doesn’t give too much prominence to the bridge planners like Moses or the engineers like Ammann and his team; instead, he foregrounds the approximately 12,000 men who built the bridge, mostly with their bare hands. The majority of them were ironworkers, or “boomers,” who took crazy risks, working at near-stratospheric heights to methodically put together suspension bridges like the Verrazano. There’s no excuse for leaving them out of the story, because without their labor, all the artistry and innovation of an Othmar Ammann remains a sketch on the drafting board.
Consider as an example one of the most widely cited facts about the Verrazano’s design: its towers were 1 5/8 inches farther apart at their tops than at their bases to account for the curvature of the Earth’s surface. A staggeringly precise calculation and a tall order requiring perfect workmanship to make it happen.
So in Talese’s book, Ammann shares the stage with a host of characters like John “Hard Nose” Murphy, who supervised the bridge’s construction; steel welder James Braddock, the “Cinderella Man” whose professional boxing feats in the ’30s couldn’t finance an early retirement; and a group of Mohawk Indians who preserved a long tradition of boomers venturing out from Canadian reservations to work on bridges and skyscrapers in New York.
The construction of the Verrazano is fascinating in the details. There was the building of the caissons, which enabled the construction of the two tower foundations deep down in the earth (in the case of the Brooklyn tower, 170 feet below sea level). There was the painstaking work of spinning the four cables, each of which contains 26,018 pencil-thin wires. And there was the graceful choreography behind each of the rivets holding the bridge together. The dance began with a “heater” warming up each rivet with a sort of barbecue, then tossing it to up to seventy feet to a “catcher,” equipped with a tool Talese calls a “metal mitt.” The catcher would then hand the rivet off to a pair of workers tasked with driving it into the towers.
The Verrazano has 3 million rivets, revealing just how swiftly the riveting gangs moved through their routine. In the grand scheme of things, five years to build the bridge was not much time at all.
When I heard that the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn was holding a special event featuring Talese in conversation about The Bridge, I figured it was my best chance to talk to him directly. If Talese spent some time with Ammann, I wondered, he might have spoken with the Partner-in-Charge of field activities. Even if my grandfather didn’t make the published account, maybe he sat for an interview or two and the author still had the notes (not an outrageous assumption considering Talese’s reputation as a thorough record-keeper.)
Before meeting up with Dominic and Shannon, two Brooklyn-based friends who joined me for the Talese event, I had the chance to check out the museum’s exhibit marking the Verrazano’s anniversary. Through my exposure to Talese’s reporting, I had learned many of the same details printed on the exhibit labels. But I was struck by two facts about Ammann I hadn’t known. One, he was eighty-five years old when the bridge opened and died less than a year later, which in my mind prompted comparison to my grandfather, who died only eleven years after the bridge’s completion. Two, Ammann had a deft handle on his own aesthetic style. I’ll always think about his description of his Verrazano — “an enormous object drawn as faintly as possible” — when I look at the bridge. (It’s always humbling when a mathematical mind outdoes you as a writer.)
The event followed a Q&A format with back and forth between Talese and New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts. My friends and I, all in our thirties, represented the youth contingent. It appeared the fans of this eighty-two-year-old author, as well as the fans of the Verrazano, were part of an older set.
Talese and Roberts had a wide-ranging discussion, but one recurring theme was the value of taking pride in your work. The ironworkers had that pride, even though, as Talese pointed out then, they didn’t get the invitation from Robert Moses to the bridge’s grand opening. We learned the pride extends to future generations of ironworkers, as shown by the event’s final guest, Joe Spratt, who appears in the new afterword of The Bridge. Spratt’s grandfather was part of the Verrazano team, and the younger Spratt has kept the tradition going most recently on the raising gang of the new World Trade Center.
Pride in work — and to a lesser extent, the daredevil’s thrill — had to have driven the Verrazano’s construction. It couldn’t be about the public recognition because it wasn’t coming, not for the boomers. And as Talese reported, even the bridge designer himself was partially snubbed.
On the historic day the Verrazano opened to traffic, Ammann rode in the 18th car of the motorcade led by Moses. As master of ceremonies, Moses asked the crowd to recognize “the greatest living bridge engineer” sitting in the second row of the grandstand, though for some reason he failed to say Ammann’s name.
After the discussion officially ended, Talese prepared to start signing copies of his book. I jumped in line, and when my big moment came, I stuttered through my question in true fan-boy style. No, Talese amiably replied, he hadn’t spoken to any bridge engineers besides Ammann.
It wasn’t a big loss. By now, Nomer Gray’s piece in this puzzle had grown less relevant, at least in terms of my own vanity quest. What I really wanted to share with Talese was the parallel I saw between me and Joe Spratt. Like Spratt, I was grateful that this book helped connect me to my family legacy.
I parted ways with Dominic and Shannon to head back home. Fittingly, my return route afforded one last chance to take in “The Bridge.” Driving across the Verrazano’s upper deck, halfway between those behemoth towers, the poem “Ozymandias” came to mind. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Virtually any English student will regurgitate the poem’s theme about the transience of human achievement and the folly of thinking otherwise. But in this case I felt I had my counter-argument. Granted, fifty years for a bridge is a relatively short stretch, and I have no authority on which to predict its longevity, but can anyone really imagine something so sturdy ever collapsing, its parts left to rust in the Narrows’ watery grave?
It’s the same as with all the pyramids, cathedrals, and temples that preceded the Verrazano. When thousands of humans rally for a single purpose, contributing all they have to give — style, vision, brawn, courage — they can make something timeless and permanent. A little swagger is justified.
For as long as this bridge is standing, it will draw a steady stream of investigators and pilgrims. And as Talese reminded us during the night’s final remarks, the most remarkable thing about the Verrazano is our temporal relationship to it. “The bridge is as young now as it was in ’64,” he said. “All the rest of us have aged. What didn’t age is the glory in the achievement.”