Manhattan Bridge: Almost 99 Years Old

The Manhattan Bridge, connecting Canal Street in Manhattan with Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, opened for business on the last day of 1909. Its 6,855-foot length carries four lanes of traffic plus a pedestrian walk on the upper level, three lanes of traffic and four subway tracks on the lower.

Here’s a wonderfully giddy photo of the bridge under construction.

Manhattan Bridge under construction, before 1909. Image: Library of Congress

The Manhattan Bridge’s design (by Leon Moisseiff) was controversial: instead of a suspension bridge with stone towers, like the Brooklyn Bridge, it was bare metal with eyebar chains. One critic noted that New York was “ugly enough already,” and it was “bad enough to have skeleton-bridge-towers” like those of the Williamsburg Bridge (completed 1903) “without the added eyesore of a chain-bridge.” (Quoted in Petroski, Engineers of Dreams, p. 168.)

West entrance

Carrere and Hastings, the prominent New York architectural firm that designed the New York Public Library, created an enormous colonnade and a grand arched entrance for the west end of the bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is the only one of the East River or Hudson River crossings to have such an elaborate entrance.

Manhattan Bridge in 1917. Image: Library of Congress

On either side of the arch are complex sculptural groups by Carl A. Heber, completed in 1915. I have to say up front that allegorical groups such as this can be difficult to interpret; if I hadn’t read somewhere that they represent the Spirit of Industry and the Spirit of Commerce, I’m not sure I’d have guessed that. On the north pier of the arch (the left side) is the Spirit of Industry.  Her pose is supposed to indicate vigorous movement, although to me it just looks somewhat unbalanced. She’s flanked by a man holding some sort of machinery and wearing a worker’s hat, and by a woman in front of a large wheel or gear.

Carl A. Heber, Spirit of Industry, 1915. West end of Manhattan Bridge. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

On the right pier (south) is the Spirit of Commerce, with Mercury / Hermes the central figure, as he is at Grand Central Terminal. He’s balancing above a globe – also rather awkwardly. He’s flanked by a female figure holding a basket of food and a male figure holding a chest or a bale of goods. Above both these groups are “trophies,” collections of objects such as a caduceus, a lion’s head, fasces, and ships’ steering wheels.

Carl A. Heber, Spirit of Commerce, 1915. West end of Manhattan Bridge. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

The frieze at the top of the arch shows Indians hunting buffaloes. I wish someone would explain why.

Charles Rumsey, Buffalo Hunt, 1915. West end of Manhattan Bridge. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

The span and the towers

If  you love early 20th-century industrial architecture (I do!), put taking photos of the span of the Manhattan Bridge on your to-do list.

Manhattan Bridge, 1909. Photo: David Shankbone / Wikipedia

Manhattan Bridge at dawn, with the Williamsburg Bridge behind it. Photo copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante

Manhattan Bridge, 1909. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

East entrance

The Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge was originally decorated with two large sculptures by Daniel Chester French, dedicated in 1916.

Brooklyn end of the Manhattan Bridge, 1925. Image: Museum of the City of New York

One of the figures is an allegory of Brooklyn. She’s elegant but approachable: at her side, a small child is curled up reading a book. Behind the child is a leafy branch: Brooklyn was known as “Borough of Trees.”

Daniel Chester French, Brooklyn, 1916. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Daniel Chester French, Brooklyn, 1916. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

On her other side is a church: Brooklyn was also known as “Borough of Churches and Homes.” A garland and a lyre indicate that Brooklyn is a cultured place.

Daniel Chester French, Brooklyn, 1916. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

That tablet in her hand reads “EENDRACHT MAAKT MACHT,” which translates as “Together we are powerful.” It’s the same idea that’s behind the Roman fasces, and (per Wikipedia) goes back to the Latin phrase concordia res parvae crescunt, “small things flourish by concord”. (Many thanks to Nick and Kristina for the translation!) The Dutch is a nod to New York’s early history as a Dutch colony. Perhaps the inclusion of the phrase is in honor of  the consolidation of forty-odd cities, towns, and villages into Greater New York in 1898.

Daniel Chester French, Brooklyn, 1916. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

In contrast to Brooklyn, French’s Manhattan looks decidedly aloof.

Daniel Chester French, Manhattan, 1916. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Her hair is in an elegant updo topped by a tiara. She wears an aegis, a reminder of Athena, goddess of knowledge and of war. In her proper right hand she holds a winged globe, symbolizing New York’s worldwide trade. Her foot rests on a lockbox, a reminder of the time when the Financial District had actual cash lying about. On her left, a proud peacock struts. The importance of New York Harbor is indicated by three ships’ prows behind the peacock.

Daniel Chester French, Manhattan, 1916. Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

On her other side are a sculptured marble torso (a nod to Manhattan’s museums) and a pile of exotic produce.

Moses shifts Brooklyn and Manhattan

I love French’s Manhattan and Brooklyn, but at the point where most traffic across the Manhattan Bridge was moving considerably faster than a horse and buggy, they probably began to vanish from public perception. And of course, the pollution from automobiles was severely damaging to the stone. In 1963, when Robert Moses decreed the creation of new entrance ramps at the east end of the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn and Manhattan were shifted to the main facade of the Brooklyn Museum, on Eastern Parkway. You can just barely see them in this photo, above the ends of the curved glass entrance.

Brooklyn Museum. Photo: PaladinHero1 / Wikipedia

There’s not much to see at the east end of the Manhattan Bridge now. But if you’re exploring the parks along the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, watch for this entrance, whose pillars are a nod to the Manhattan Bridge’s towers.

Manhattan Bridge, 1909, and Main Street Park. Photo copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante


  • More fantastic pics of the Manhattan Bridge under construction and details of the bridge are on the Forgotten-NY site.
  • For more on French’s Brooklyn and Manhattan, see Richman, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor. French is most famous for the Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Aside from his Continents, Manhattan has his Alma Mater at Columbia and Richard Morris Hunt Memorial. Brooklyn has his lovely  Marquis de Lafayette in Prospect Park.
  • French’s Brooklyn and Manhattan were recently “reproduced” in resin with interior LED lights; they slowly revolve on pedestals at Tillary and Flatbush. Guess which pair I prefer.
  • For more on New York City’s infrastructure, see Bridges in the Obsessions cloud at right.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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