The Case of the Manhattan Bridge Blueprints
The following post was written by Lindsay Dumas, a former archival assistant at the New York University Archives.
In August 2009 I uncovered an original blueprint of the Manhattan Bridge while processing boxes of unsorted blueprints that were part of the Records of the Office of the University Architect (Joseph Roberto). Wrapped in folders and tied with twine, this bulky package stood out from all the others. A note was attached that provided some basic, if vague information:
A former student was responsible for these being sent to Professor Reither. They have to do with the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. There is an Elihu Root autograph. I told Reither that we would put these with our building plans for the time being.
– B. Still”
The print itself was too fragile to unfold, but I was able to take a peek at the corner that contained the blueprint information to confirm that the blueprint was in fact an original Manhattan Bridge blueprint. The attached note answered a few of the initial questions I had, including what was the print of and why it was in the University Archives.
However, it brought up many more questions: Who was this “former student” and why did he/she have this blueprint? Who was Professor Reither? Why did Bayrd Still, former University Archivist, decide to place it in the University Archives holdings? Was there a connection between NYU and the Manhattan Bridge? While the print was sent to the Preservation department, I began researching the provenance of this unique piece in an attempt to answer these questions, because I had the sneaking suspicion that this print never really belonged here.
I began by researching the bridge itself, hoping to find a connection to NYU. What I quickly found out was that there is not a lot of information out there on New York bridges that are less aesthetic than the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Even the New York Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, has very little to say about it. The bridge was designed by Leon Moisseiff (who would go on to design the infamous Tacoma-Narrows Bridge in 1940) and construction began in 1901. The bridge opened to traffic in 1909 and was completed in 1912. After my initial Internet searches I turned to the library holdings in the hope of finding more information about the designing and building of the bridge. I was able to find a controversy over the original design of the bridge by the New York Bridge Commissioner, Gustav Lindenthal, who proposed a radical twist on conventional suspension bridge design, but was ousted as the commissioner and bridge designer by politicians with close ties to Tammany Hall.
Armed with background on the bridge, I began looking into the information from the note attached to the print. I first used the University Archives’ biographical files to find Professor Reither. Joseph Reither was an Assistant Professor of History at the University Heights campus as of 1947, and his particular area of scholarship was in intellectual and world history. No clear connection between Reither and the Manhattan Bridge could be found; however, both Bayrd Still and Reither were faculty in the History department during the same time. Since they knew one another, this might account for Still holding on to the blueprints in the archive where the 70 year old prints would be in a safe, controlled environment.
According to Still’s biographical file, he was interested in the history of urban development, which could also account for why he took the blueprint, but there was no mention of the blueprints or the Manhattan Bridge in the biographical file or in the Bayrd Still Papers. I also examined the Records of the University Architect to see what information it contained on non-NYU buildings, since the former University Architect, Joseph Roberto, did work on non-NYU related projects, and the collection contained blueprints from other area buildings and structures. Unfortunately, this too was a dead end.
I then turned my attention to Elihu Root, whose signature was on the prints, according to Still’s note. Root was the Secretary of War under William McKinley from 1899-1904 and presumably signed the document allowing a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn to be constructed. Root was an 1867 graduate of the NYU Law School, providing a tenuous link between the blueprint and NYU. Root was a noteworthy person in the history of New York in the years before and after the turn of the century, so it is possible that the significance of this blueprint is not the fact that it is an original Manhattan Bridge blueprint, but that it contains the signature of Elihu Root.
One of the big questions from the note was who was this student and why might he or she have this blueprint? NYU does not currently have an architecture program, nor could I find evidence that it ever did by looking in course catalogs. I also looked into the Graduate School of Public Administration during the same period, since it has an Urban Planning program and contains numerous institutes and centers on urban development and transportation that may have existed in the 1960s and 70s, but I could not confirm that through the records on the school.
After exhausting the resources of the University Archives in an attempt to determine the seeming simple questions of how and why these blueprints came to the archives, it became clear that the mystery of the Manhattan Bridge blueprints could not be solved.
According to my correspondence with the Municipal Archives, they had no blueprints of the Manhattan Bridge in their holdings.