Plummeted Like A Stone

The vast majority of structures recorded by the Historic American Building Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record are distinguished by their design, by their history, or by both. Some are not, or rather by our standards today are not. I was mildly surprised to see the old West Side Highway had been photographed by HAER in 1974, but the surprised faded after a moment’s reflection. I was judging the highway by how it is seen today (a terrible design for a mistaken effort) and not by how it was seen when built (the future of transportation). A graph of the reputation of the highway would be a diagonal line, starting at near-universal approval and descending to near-universal hatred in a surprisingly short time.

The picture above gives some sense of the highway’s appearance: an elevated structure following West Street and Twelfth Avenue from the Battery to 72nd Street, where it continued as the Henry Hudson Parkway through Riverside Park. Most of the highway was the repetitive framing seen on the left, with the occasional special structure, like the arch bridge over Canal Street seen in the distance on the right. That bridge was necessary to carry the highway over the Holland Tunnel’s below-grade structure. The buildings on the far side of the highway are the headhouses of piers on the Hudson River.

The original highway opened in phases from Canal Street (the original southern end) to 72nd Street between 1929 and 1937; it was extended south to the underpass to the east side below Battery Park in phases from 1938 to 1951, including a work hiatus for World War II.

This highway, constructed before the issue of traffic generation was understood, was meant to speed travel to lower Manhattan by getting it off the streets. It had high-design elements as befitted important new infrastructure:

The seal of the City of New York, in iron.
A flying wheel in granite, at Canal Street, with a ventilation tower for the Holland Tunnel in the background.

Highway standards evolved fairly rapidly in the mid-twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that the lanes on the highway were too narrow and the turns too abrupt by modern standards. That, by itself, would not have doomed it, although it led a lot of drivers to hate it; poor maintenance, water, and road salt are what killed it. A truck carrying asphalt for pothole repair trigged a collapse of a portion of the elevated structure in 1973:

It was eventually demolished up to 57th Street and the portion from 57th Street to 72nd Street heavily rebuilt. The surface streets have been given some aspects of a highway, like ramps and synchronized lights, but still have traffic lights and crosswalks.

Something like this was probably inevitable. Everyone’s experience with elevated structures prior to the 1920s was with railroads, which are not salted, and bridges of various types, which receive far more maintenance than streets. The highway was seen as an elevated street and treated as one, which led to rapid disintegration. About forty years from the grand opening to the emergency shutdown may not be a record, but it’s a very fast reduction in structural capacity and public reputation.

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