Monthly Archives: September 2015

Free time in New York: Brooklyn Bridge

New York City:  Brooklyn Bridge

New York City: Brooklyn Bridge

The pedestrian and cycle path across Brooklyn Bridge is one of the great cost-free experiences of New York City.

Some people think the Brooklyn Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in the world.  It has a unique place in the development of the most elegant of all bridge designs – the suspension bridge.  Its stone piers with their Gothic arches, the fanning suspension cables and its unparalleled setting make it unmistakable.

The bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), whose adoption of 3,000-ton pneumatic caissons to dig through the river silt to the bedrock below made possible the 276-foot Gothic towers that carry the span.  Roebling’s expertise, which included building the first suspension bridge across the gorge below Niagara Falls (1855), came from his ownership of a wire-manufacturing company.

Surveying began in 1867, but before construction began Roebling was injured in a ferry accident and shortly afterwards died of tetanus.

The project passed to his son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), who also lost his health to the Brooklyn Bridge.  He fell victim to the then unknown condition we now call decompression sickness, and was so debilitated that he had to supervise the project remotely, using his wife Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) as his amanuensis and messenger.  She became so knowledgeable and capable about bridge engineering that many thought she was the actual designer.

Its 1,595-foot central span was at the time the longest in the world, half as long again as the previous record-holder, J A Roebling’s Cincinnati-Covington Bridge (1856-67)  [].  The clearance-height above the river, 135 feet, became the international standard for bridging waterways that carry sea-going vessels.  This was the first suspension bridge to use galvanised steel cables, and the first project to use dynamite in bridge construction.  Its cost was $15,100,000 – more than twice the initial budget.

It opened on May 24th 1883 with a procession led by Emily Warren Roebling, accompanied by President Chester Arthur and the Governor of New York State, Grover Cleveland (later 22nd and 24th President) and the Mayors of New York and Brooklyn.  Washington Roebling remained at home in Brooklyn Heights where he hosted a celebratory dinner later in the day.

The Brooklyn Bridge has hidden depths.  At least one of the vaults within the Brooklyn approach, originally planned as a shopping arcade, was leased to a wine-merchant and has been periodically rediscovered:  In 2006 a disused nuclear bunker was discovered in the Manhattan foundations, containing “more than 350,000 items, including half-century-old water drums, food canisters, and medical supplies”:

There is a comprehensive series of photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge at

Footage dating from 1899 shows a cab-ride in an elevated railway train, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at the time when it was shared between pedestrians, road vehicles, trains and streetcars:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Free time in New York: Staten Island Ferry

New York City:  Staten Island Ferry

New York City: Staten Island Ferry

The classic way of seeing New York Harbour as it should be seen, by water, is the Staten Island Ferry, which runs twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, except overnight on public holidays, and is entirely free of charge:

The first steam-powered ferry service between Manhattan and Staten Island was operated by the Nautilus (1817).

The ferry company was purchased in 1838 by future railroad entrepreneur “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), and at the start of the Civil War it passed to the Commodore’s brother, Jacob H Vanderbilt, a leading figure in the Staten Island Railway company.  Later still it was taken over by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Staten Island, as part of the Borough of Richmond, was absorbed into the City of New York in 1898 and the ferry service was taken over by the New York Docks and Ferries Department in 1905.

It remains the responsibility of what is now the New York Department of Transportation.

Initially, the municipalised Staten Island Ferry charged the same 5-cent fare as the New York Subway, and for much of the twentieth century the ferry-fare remained the same while subway fares increased.  Between 1972 and 1990 the fare increased in stages to 50 cents, still a great bargain.

Fare-collection was abolished in 1997, since when the Staten Island Ferry has been one of the best free attractions in New York.

Most tourists simply sail out to Staten Island and come straight back, but you have to disembark and re-board, so it’s worth having a drink or a meal with a distant view of Manhattan at the River Dock Café, Staten Island Ferry Terminal:  

I had traditional fish and chips, a well-intentioned approximation to the British national dish, with three fillets of Atlantic cod and British chips.  (What the Americans usually call “chips” in England would be crisps;  what the Americans call “fries” are British chips, but not at the River Dock Café.)

The beer’s good too – such as Sam Adams Rebel IPA (ABV 6.5%):

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Pugin’s Gem

St Giles' Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

Of all the architectural work that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin carried out for John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the finest and most complete is the Catholic parish church of St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire.   (The Anglican parish church in Cheadle is also dedicated to St Giles.)

The Earl was keen to provide the finest of parish churches for the Catholic community in the nearest town to his Alton Towers seat.  As an enlightened Victorian landowner, he specified that construction should be entrusted to “resident artisans of the village” so that “all his dependants should…be benefited by the effects of his munificence”.

His architect set out to present “a perfect revival of the English parish church of the time of Edward I, decidedly the best period of pointed architecture”.

There were a few compromises, especially after the £5,000 budget overran, but in essence St Giles’ represents the physical embodiment of the architectural ideals of the first and greatest of Gothic Revival designers.

He set out his basic principles in The True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841):

The two great rules for design are these:  first, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety;  second, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.

St Giles’ dominates the skyline for miles around Cheadle, and impresses at close quarters, because the structural features, particularly the 200ft-high tower and the buttresses, are in fact larger than they practically need to be.  Pugin also tweaked the west-east orientation to make best use of the site and to align the west door with the street opposite.

The interior of St Giles’ takes the breath away.  Every inch of wall and column is coloured and gilded.  Each of the windows has tracery of a differing design.  The floor is tiled, and the roof is of English oak.  The painted decoration has tremendous impact:  the ground colours of the north aisle (blue) and the south aisle (red) represent respectively Our Lady and Our Lord.  The glass, floor-tiles, woodwork and ornaments were designed by Pugin, who closely supervised their manufacture.

St Giles’ is special because it is almost entirely the vision of one superbly talented designer.

By the time of the consecration on St Giles’ Day, September 1st 1846, Pugin was putting himself under the stress that five years later led to a complete physical and mental breakdown.

It seems as if he was destined for a short life of brilliant achievement.  He adored the place – “my consolation in all afflictions” – and in many ways it is his finest monument.

He would demur, and no doubt assert that it was built ad majorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Not that sort of hospital

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

Alongside the spectacular dwelling at Alton Castle, George, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to build a complex of philanthropic buildings that came to be called Alton Hospital – certainly not a medical facility as the word is now used, nor entirely what we’d now call a “hospice”.

It was to be a hospital according to the medieval concept,– that is a complex including a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which Pugin came to describe with his customary enthusiasm as “a perfect revival of the true thing”.

Pugin was an artistic genius and an irrepressible personality.  As a convert to Roman Catholicism he had developed a rigorous aesthetic philosophy that Britain, as a Christian country, should maintain the traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, in its architecture as much as in religious observance.  To Pugin, Gothic was a matter of purity and integrity, and not merely a decorative style.

He had come to the Earl’s attention, and was entrusted with significant extensions to the main house at Alton Towers, as well as Alton Castle and the Hospital.

Though his architectural legacy is entirely serious, Pugin himself was flamboyant.  Apart from Gothic architecture, his other enthusiasm was sailing.  He once declared, “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture and a boat.”

Pugin had begun his career, before his conversion, as a theatre set-painter at Covent Garden, and at the height of his powers he was perfectly capable of throwing what we’d now call a hissy-fit:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter…for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

The Earl, a sincere and tolerant man with a fat cheque book, was inclined to indulge his brilliant protégé’s striving for perfection.

The design of Alton Hospital consists of three sides of a quadrangle, with the Guildhall, comprising a school and village institute, almshouse accommodation, latterly used as a convent, and a chapel, which now serves as the parish church of St John the Baptist.

Pugin and the Earl died within two months of each other in 1852 and the earldom and the Alton Estate soon afterwards passed to a Protestant branch of the family.

Nevertheless, the buildings survived intact and in use, and are now part of a Catholic residential centre administered by the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Never say never

North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Pickering Station:  BR loco 45407

North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Pickering Station: BR loco 45407 ‘The Lancashire Fusilier’

When the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society took on the closed railway line between Grosmont and Rillington Junction, which formerly linked Whitby with York, they confined their efforts to reviving services between Grosmont and Pickering.

The stretch south from Pickering to Rillington Junction was abandoned in 1965 and the trackbed is blocked by buildings, including a library, and a major road junction.

Heritage steam trains draw into Pickering station and reverse on a stub short of what used to be a level crossing over a main road.

The NYMR has consistently rejected suggestions to restore the connection, arguing that it is impractical and would threaten its status as one of Britain’s most successful and efficient heritage railways.

It’s difficult to argue with an outfit as good at what they do as the NYMR. They claim to inject £30 million per annum into the local economy. Their relationship with Network Rail and local communities was not only strong enough to take steam trains back into Whitby station, but secured the finance to reinstate a second platform at Whitby to increase capacity.

On some Sundays each year, when Northern Rail doesn’t provide a service, the NYMR takes over the Esk Valley line and runs through to Battersby.

Indeed, the NYMR’s preference for a connection to York is to reinstate the line south of Battersby to the East Coast Main Line at Picton.

Nevertheless, the stub of track south of Pickering Station is a tempting ellipsis…