Othmar Ammann's Glory | History | Smithsonian

Othmar Ammann's Glory

Genius, willpower and thousands of miles of steel wire went into the George Washington Bridge

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It was called the most beautiful bridge in the world. At the time of its 1931 opening, it certainly was the longest single span. To honor the engineering feat it represented, a stamp with its picture was issued, and the bridge became the subject of music, even a children's book.

Yet, a section of suspension cable for the George Washington Bridge in the collections of the National Museum of American History can only hint at such glories. Three feet in diameter and ten feet long, the massive cylinder weighs an ungainly 34,000 pounds. From its ends protrude 26,474 individual steel wires, compacted under 400 tons of pressure. Before computers, this experimental section helped engineers model the effects of compression on the finished bridge's cables. Today, it represents an engineering marvel, whose creation spanned half a century of depressions, politics and the passions of two of America's greatest bridge designers.

No matter when it was built, the first bridge to span the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City was destined for fame. After the Civil War, a single span was determined most suitable for the wide, heavily trafficked river just west of the fast-growing metropolis. But materials and engineering skill lagged far behind the dream.

Until 1888. Just five years after the completion of John Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge, then the world's longest suspension bridge, 38-year-old Austrian-born engineer Gustav Lindenthal put forth a plan for a suspension bridge across the Hudson. It was a grand concoction: six railroad tracks, more than a mile in total length. Its center span was to be nearly twice as long as that of Roebling's widely admired masterpiece.

Great feats of engineering require greater feats of imagination. For both, Lindenthal was well qualified. With little formal education and a physique to match the size of his dreams, he had taught himself English and the rudiments of engineering. Immigrating to America in 1874, he quickly prospered in his adopted land, whose engineers had more use for quick thinking and practical energy than college degrees.

By the turn of the century, Lindenthal was renowned among his peers. His Seventh Street and Smithfield Street bridges in Pittsburgh were some of the most significant of their time. In 1902, Lindenthal became commissioner of bridges for New York City, a political appointment that gave him considerable power and prestige as an engineer and designer. But his dream bridge still had not been built. Despite endorsement of Lindenthal's Hudson River bridge plan by the War Department, a rival bridge concern had sued to stop the project. By the time the case was settled, the depression of the early 1890s had dried up most of the funds. Replaced as commissioner after the 1903 city elections, Lindenthal found himself in the odd position of peddling new Hudson River bridge designs to myriad interested groups — with no agreement on location, cost or funding.

In the meantime, the city grew. By 1912, Lindenthal was busy completing plans for a railroad bridge — the world's longest steel arch bridge, in fact — across the dangerous channel between Manhattan and Queens called Hell Gate. To help with the task, the august designer took on a 33-year-old assistant not long arrived from Switzerland.

Slight in stature, with a quiet demeanor that hid a steely core, Othmar Ammann seemed the opposite of the large, bluff, practically educated Lindenthal. Ammann's degree, unlike any that Lindenthal might occasionally claim, was from a Swiss institute of technology considered one of the most prestigious in the world. Ammann was impressed by his mentor, one of the world's preeminent bridge builders — and the favor was returned. "I estimate an engineer one-third by his character, one-third by his ability, and one-third by his experience," Ammann recalled Lindenthal saying before promoting him for outstanding work on the Hell Gate Bridge project.

Through all of this, Lindenthal's dream for a span over the Hudson continued. But what was grand in 1888 had, through decades of deferment, become fantastical. By 1923, Lindenthal's plan called for a bridge more than 200 feet wide, with two decks, one for 12 railroad tracks, the other for 20 vehicle lanes, including two for trolleys. Its massive concrete towers, at 825 feet high, would rise above even the ten-year-old Woolworth Building, then the world's tallest skyscraper. The price: at least a cool $200 million (nearly two billion in today's dollars). Ammann deferentially warned Lindenthal that such a costly project would never be realized. But the old master sharply rebuked his assistant for his "timidity and shortsightedness in not looking far enough ahead," as Ammann noted in his diary. "He stated that he was looking ahead for 1,000 years."

A thousand years or no, his professional relationship with Lindenthal quickly deteriorated. "In vain," wrote a frustrated Ammann to his mother later that year, "I as well as others have been fighting against the unlimited ambition of a genius that is obsessed with illusions of grandeur. He has the power in his hands and refuses to bring moderation into his gigantic plans. Instead, his illusions lead him to enlarge his plans more and more."

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