Fort Lee Historic Park

by James V May. 11, 2021 140 views

Fort Lee, originally named Fort Constitution was built along the Hudson River in New Jersey, during July of 1776 as part of a strategic defense plan conceived by George Washington to protect the Hudson waterway from British invasion. It was constructed opposite another fort named Fort Washington located in upper Manhattan. You would think this 18th century Malachi Crunch strategy would have filled the British generals with doubt.

But like the Malachi Brothers 20th century television efforts, the 18th century Fonzarellis and Tuscaderos weren't to be intimidated or denied. Washington's plan failed. The defenses were overrun by the British (actually Hessian) troops in the third week of November 1776, as they climbed the Palisades Cliffs (another interesting story) and forced Washington to retreat through the County and over the Passaic River to the Southwest. Washington eventually marched his troops further South, to Trenton in December 1776 (approximately 50 miles), where a battle with the British ended in a better outcome for the newly declared America and its General Washington.

The Fort Lee historic park, located in Fort Lee, New Jersey (named after Chester Lee, American General) honors some of our early American history and remains an interesting sightseeing spot along the Hudson River overlooking the George Washington bridge leading from Fort Lee to Washington Heights in Manhattan. I suppose it took more time to heal the wounds of Washington's defeat before the area was able to name something after George.

The George Washington bridge was constructed during the Great Depression (it cost $75 million when finished in 1931) and became the most traveled bridge in America. Over 100 million cars a year travel over the bridge on two levels (the second level finished in 1962) and 14 lanes. The toll to cross the bridge into New York? $16. If you are a regular commuter with EZPass, $13.75. What a bargain. You do the math.

The bridge was originally designed to have a restaurant located on the top of the West (NJ side) tower. It was never built. (Depression). The bridge towers were originally designed to be clad in granite. They were never clad. (Depression). The bridge, because it is made of exposed steel frame and cabling, must be painted often. (every 10 years). The cost to paint the bridge that LeCorbusier, famous Swiss architect called "the most beautiful bridge in the world," is almost $200 million. Do the math...$75 million to build it...$200 million to paint it.

Whether anyone should believe Corbu's love affair with the bridge is questionable. Perhaps he had a love affair with paint as it appears other, quite attractive suspension bridges had been constructed by 1947. No comment. Okay, one comment, Corbusier wrote this statement to justify his aesthetic philosophy about the beauty of "honesty" in modern design, achieved when a structure sheds superfluous ornament or cladding for the sake of exposing its details of construction as the true architectural ornament appropriate for the "machine age" of modern living.

The exposed structure of the bridge sheds its skin, making its skeletal masculinity appear somewhat vulnerable, though its structural members appear substantial, evenly spaced and weighted with little sense or need of hierarchy - perhaps as Washington may have thought of himself. The design of the bridge eschews "delicacy." Instead, it reminds residents and observers of a time when Americans built things to stand a lifetime, like brick shit-houses, even if they were built during the Great Depression...especially if they were built during the Great Depression. The Empire State Building, of the same era, is another example of such an image, ironically, it is clad in granite stone.

Personally, I prefer the exposed structure. The cladding of the towers would have made them look heavier and larger, perhaps overpowering the visual skyline. Cladding the towers would have risked a poor proportion above the arch of the bridge, as the wall surface is quite high: designed to provide adequate structure where forces are largest, so that they may be routed downwards into the tower foundations as well as the rock embankments on the opposite sides of the bridge. In its final design, the bridge reinforces a utilitarian aesthetic with some drama achieved as a result of the 3500 feet span between the towers.

The park area is 33 +/- acres. Many people were present the day I visited. Most walk the paths along the river side for views of the bridge, Manhattan, and the reconstructed structures that describe what plans Washington had for the enemy before his namesake bridge revealed vulnerabilities of a different sort.

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