Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday Afternoon in Brooklyn Heights: Dave Frieder and "100 Years of the Manhattan Bridge" at the Brooklyn Historical Society

After having a great lunch at a Korean restaurant near Ground Zero with our friend Ken, an attorney who we met forty years ago in a Men's Health Ed class at Brooklyn College, we took the 5 train one stop from Bowling Green to Borough Hall to go to a 2 p.m. lecture and slide show, "One Hundred Years of the Manhattan Bridge" with Dave Frieder, bridge historian and master photographer, at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Before an audience of about 40 or 45, mostly seniors, "Dave the Bridge Guy" spoke for about an hour while he showed slides of Manhattan Bridge history and his own breathtaking photographs (on sale at his website) which will make a handsome coffee-table book one day. Here is Dave at the top of the bridge by one of the purely decorative spheres:

Obviously, as he said, he has no fear of heights and is an expert climber. Dave had eight years of unlimited access to the bridges until 9/11, with the total cooperation of the Port Authority as well as great help from the Department of Transportation, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and Amtrak.

Dave began by speaking about the history of the Manhattan Bridge, the somewhat unappreciated sister to the celebrated Brooklyn Bridge, but our own personal favorite East River crossing, probably because it's the one we used the most for a trip from our neighborhood in Flatlands/Old Mill Basin straight up Flatbush Avenue into lower Manhattna.

Recent rehabilitation of the Manhattan Bridge seems to be completed, with just a few more small projects, but of course the 1909 bridge is under constant repairs. We can recall as a sophomore at the Franklin School in 1965-66, we'd drive in every morning with our dad (he took us as far as his workplace near 14th Street and we took the M10 bus the rest of the way to 89th and Central Park West). Even back then the lower roadway was closed for most of the year.

Dave noted that a common mistake, as in the Wikipedia entry on the Manhattan Bridge, is that Ralph Modjeski was involved in its design; he wasn't. The Manhattan Bridge was designed by Leon Moisseiff, who unfortunately is known best as the designer of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, whose swaying destruction into Puget Sound we've all seen:

Dave explained that there were two possible designs for the bridge, an eye-bar like the Queensboro Bridge and the parallel wire cabled suspension bridge we have today.

Both upper roadways of the bridge originally had four tracks for trolleys, later removed to convert the roadways for vehicular traffic as cars proliferated. The
Manhattan Bridge was the first suspension bridge to use flexible steel towers, unlike the Williamsburg and the George Washington, which used braced steel towers. The Manhattan bridge was the first modern steel suspension bridge to use a Warren type stiffening truss and to use two suspender ropes straddled over the main cables to attach to the floor beams.

As Dave writes on his website:
"My work on this long-term project has been exhilarating and fascinating as I began to study bridges and began to realize they are engineering marvels. It came to my attention that in order to be able to capture a subject on film, paper, or canvas, one must understand your subject fully. For me, being able to 'Feel The Steel' was a way of understanding how and why bridges work and function. My vision of the great structures was getting better every year! For most of my images I take on the Bridges, I use a Hasselblad Camera in conjunction with a 'Gyro' stabilizer."

He showed us old cable wire and rivets from the bridge which were replaced in recent years and discussed his experiences as well as the history of the Manhattan Bridge, whose main design flaw seems to be that the four subway tracks on the lower level were placed on the outside rather than the center of the bridge.

Some of the engineering stuff Dave talked about frankly was as much above our head as is the bridge itself when we are strolling down DUMBO's streets, but he spoke about the deflection and resistance of the bridge and how the train tracks were really built when both people and trains were smaller and less heavy.

He showed all kinds of great photos he's taken - all with film, nothing digital - of the Manhattan Bridge, from the anchorage to what seemed like every conceivable spot and angle going up to the top.

He discussed the bridge's roadways, its construction, its color (we love the blue, but it was once gray) as well as his work habits and how he came to his love of bridges as a childhood devotee of Gilbert erector sets (the best).

We were enthralled by his photographs and amazed at Dave the Bridge Guy's knowledge, not just of the Manhattan Bridge, but of every bridge in the city. He's a real living resource for New York history as well as a supremely talented artist. We're grateful to the Brooklyn Historical Society for giving us the opportunity to see Dave Frieder and his work and to listen to his engaging talk.

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