One of the biggest myths about Robert Moses is that he was so powerful that he managed to build whatever he wanted wherever he desired. In reality nothing could have been further from the truth; Moses worked within political and economic realities and more often than not had to change his plans to satisfy elected officials, citizens, insurance companies, and other stakeholders. One project dear to his heart was the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. If you have never heard of it, that’s because it never got built. The bridge would have gone fro the Manhattan Battery to Brooklyn Heights.
It almost happened. Moses pushed the initiative through the myriad city agencies and managed to get Governor Herbert H. Lehman signed off on the measure. It took none other than President Franklin Roosevelt to quash the deal. It was a personal thing with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; they were New Yorkers who owned a house on East 65th Street, Franklin was briefly a Wall Street lawyer, and their Roosevelt ancestors had roots in the city dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.
Eighty years ago today, writing from far off Seattle in her April 5, 1939 “My Day” column, Eleanor wrote obliquely of Moses and his proposed bridge:
“I have a plea from a man who is deeply interested in Manhattan Island, particularly in the beauty of the approach from the ocean at Battery Park. He tells me that a New York official who is, without doubt, always efficient, is proposing a bridge 100 feet high at the river, which will go across to the Whitehall Building over Battery Park. This, he says, will mean a screen of elevated roadways, pillars, etc., at that particular point. I haven’t a question that this will be done in the name of progress, and something undoubtedly needs to be done. But isn’t there room for some considereation of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island? After all, lower Manhattan at Battery Park is one of the gateways through which many of us leave and enter our country. These moments are important moments in our lives and the irritation of an eyesore perpetrated in the name of progress will be bad for the souls of many Americans.”
If you look at the rendering above, you see that the proposed bridge would have cut through the harbor directly north of Governors Island, still a major headquarters of the U.S. Army. Further north, in the East River, was the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Besides ruining the beautiful views Mrs. Roosevelt speaks of, there were national security implications. And that was how the president and his Secretary of War, Harry H. Woodring, killed the thing, declaring the harbor too important for national security interests to have such a bridge cross through it. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built instead.
(image/New York Preservation Archive Project)