Category Archives: Architecture

Happy Birthday, Hell Gate Bridge!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Barge Approaching Hell Gate Bridge

Barge approaching Hell Gate Bridge

It’s hard to believe the Hell Gate Bridge is almost 100 years old.

98, to be exact: The bridge first opened on September 30, 1916. I’ve written about my love for the Hell Gate three years ago, in my birthday greetings to the Bayonne Bridge.

But it’s worth summarizing again why I feel so strongly about the Hell Gate. As I wrote then:

I love bridges. I’m not entirely sure why. Partly it’s the look of them: They seem almost alive, taking off in a leap of concrete, stone, or steel,  somehow infinitely optimistic and everlastingly hopeful. Partly it’s their function: Bringing things together, connecting people and places that were previously divided. And of course, bridges often cross moving water—another of my favorite things.

But though I love them all, some bridges in particular hold a special place in my heart.

Many years ago I worked north of New York City (in Connecticut and later in White Plains). The hours were grueling—some days I’d leave my apartment at 5 AM and not return until 11 PM. Sometimes I drove, but I preferred to take the Metro-North train. I relished the peacefulness of the scenery rolling by.

As we crossed the Harlem River, I’d catch sight of one bridge in particular, a study in contrasts: graceful, soaring, yet solid, composed of two steel arches with slightly different curvatures, so they were closer together at the top of the arch and wider apart at the bases, anchored in solid stone towers.

The rising sun would touch this bridge and (so I thought) paint it a lovely shade of rosy pink.  The memory of that beauty was often the nicest part of my day.

Hell Gate Bridge, seen from our window

Hell Gate Bridge at sunrise, seen from our window

But for years, I didn’t know what the bridge was called, or even where, exactly, it was. All I knew was that the sight of it reliably brightened my mornings.

One day I happened to mention the bridge to my father, a retired naval officer who had once been stationed in New York City, but now lived hundreds of miles away.

He recognized it immediately from my description: “That’s Hell Gate Bridge,” he said. An odd name for a structure of such harmonious beauty! I hadn’t heard of Hell Gate before, and my dad explained it was where the Harlem River joined the East River. Hell Gate was a treacherous body of water characterized by converging currents and occasional whirlpools that had been the doom of hundreds of ships over the past several centuries.

“As a young ensign, I was on a ship that went through Hell Gate,” my father said. “But I don’t recall that the bridge was pink.” That would have been in the late 1940s; I can’t recall for certain what kind of ship he told me it was, but my memory insists it was a destroyer.

Many years later, I’ll not forget the thrill I had the first time I passed under the bridge, in a far different vessel: My trusty yellow kayak, Photon.

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge

We paddle under the Hell Gate Bridge (photo by Johna)

As for the bridge’s color, I later learned my dad was right. The bridge was painted “pink” (actually a color called Hell Gate Red) only in 1996—but the paint has faded to a pastel rose, as you can see.

When doing further research, I learned that:

  • The Hell Gate and Bayonne Bridges reflect the vision of the same man, Czech-Austrian civil engineer Gustav Lindenthal. (Lindenthal designed the Hell Gate, and his Swiss co-worker and protege Othmar Ammann designed Bayonne.)
  • Their beauty is no accident. According to Wikipedia, “Lindenthal’s work was greatly affected by his pursuit for perfection and his love of art. His structures not only serve the purpose they were designed for, but are aesthetically pleasing to the public eye.” Indeed!
  • There’s a third sister (or perhaps cousin): The world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although designed by a different firm, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was inspired by Hell Gate and Bayonne.

I also learned that the Hell Gate Bridge was so perfectly engineered that when the main span was lifted into place, the adjustment required was a mere half-inch!

Happy birthday, you beautiful creature. You haven’t aged a bit!

Travel Theme: Round

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Round.

Round or square—which do you think will last longer through the coming storms?

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Execution Rocks Light, Long Island Sound

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Thacher Island Twin Lights, Cape Ann, Massachusetts

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Romer Shoal Light, New York Harbor

There’s a reason why most lighthouses are round.

On the other hand, Old Orchard Shoal Light, a round lighthouse similar to Romer Shoal Light and just a few miles away from it in New York Harbor, was swept away by Hurricane Sandy.

And the square keeper’s house of Execution Rocks Light, which survived Sandy just fine, is being converted to a Bed & Breakfast, which will probably ensure it a long life…

Travel Theme: Architecture

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Architecture.

Manhattan, of course, is full of dramatic architecture. But it’s sometimes hard to grasp it all from the inside. You need to stand a bit apart—or even better, sit in a kayak!

Here is some of Manhattan’s architecture that we saw on our paddle just this last weekend (full set of photos is here):

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Weekly Photo Challenges: One Shot, Two Ways in Architecture

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s photo challenge from The Daily Post is One Shot, Two Ways, and from Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack? it is Architecture.

New York City overwhelms with its architecture, old and new, at ground level and high above. The photographer has to choose whether to capture the details of the architectural landscape or to portray the soaring verticals…

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Another “One Shot, Two Ways” post was here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Geometry, Take Two

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Geometry.

9/11 Memorial and surrounding buildings, Manhattan. More photos and story are here.

Two other responses to the “Geometry” challenge are here and here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Geometry

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Geometry.

Upper East Side of Manhattan, 2010.

Two further responses to the “Geometry” challenge are here and here.

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Just Hanging Out in New Orleans

By Vladimir Brezina

Most architectural sculptures work hard at their jobs.

Caryatids carry things on their heads….

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… atlants bow down under the weight of entire facades

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… even gargoyles make themselves useful when it rains

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But these guys are just hanging out, shooting the breeze…

What was the sculptor thinking? Any ideas?