Promenade Historian Releases Definitive Book on Its Creation

Left, an exhuberant ballet student leaps off a Promenade bench as a fellow student watches and another takes a photo. Henrik Krogius.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is an elegant and unique public space, beloved by neighbors and visitors alike for its magnificent views.

Henrik Krogius, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press and Cobble Hill News, has for decades written about and photographed this grand walkway topping the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and has just published the first book, The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, on how it came to be.

In a recent interview, Krogius told of how he once traveled the globe looking for similar pedestrian-friendly treatments of a major roadway and found that there was nothing else like it. He calls it “the most remarkable, unusual segment of any highway maybe anywhere.”

Henrik Krogius

 

He would know. Krogius’ relationship with the Promenade goes beyond his coverage of it in newsprint. He spent his teenage years in the Heights, and saw the Promenade’s completion in 1951. In 1953, while on leave from the Air Force, he wrote to Robert Moses, New York’s all-powerful “master builder,” to voice his disagreement with an unpopular plan to build 70-foot warehouses on Furman Street, effectively blocking the view from the Promenade. (He received a personal, two-page reply, beginning “Dear Lieutenant,” which contended that Krogius simply didn’t understand the complications of zoning. The warehouses were never built.)

But his more intimate investigation began one spring day in 1976. Krogius was part of a strike against NBC when, at the behest of the publisher of the Heights Press, he set out to the Long Island Historical Society (now the Brooklyn Historical Society) to tackle what he thought was a straightforward research query: How did the Promenade come to be?

While it is well known that the BQE was built under the watch of Robert Moses as part of a push to facilitate vehicular traffic, the cantilevered deck above it is a different matter, extraneous to Moses’ goals. Krogius, however, found documentation about the Promenade’s origins to be surprisingly thin, at the historical society and elsewhere. And thus his investigation into the story began.

 

Above, a July heatwave in 1977. Firefighters still docked at the piers below the Promenade, and the World Trade Center towers dominated the Manhattan skyline. Henrik Krogius.

 

Claiming Credit

He interviewed several of the engineers associated with the project, none of whom are still alive today. “Many claimed credit for the Promenade,” he says, but others remembered differently, and no one had evidence to support their claims. Others claimed to have influenced the design, such as Gladys Underwood of the typewriter fortune, who held real estate in the Heights. Robert Moses stated in a letter to Krogius that this was not so.

Krogius eventually connected with an urban planning grad student at Columbia University who had uncovered the transcript from the only public hearing on the project, held in March of 1943, just weeks before the Promenade’s design was finalized. From the transcript, then-president of the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) Roy Richardson, then-governor of the BHA Ferdinand Nitardy, and Robert Moses are quoted extensively. The exchanges revealed that Nitardy, upset about the disruption to his property on Columbia Heights, pleaded with Moses to put the proposed highway on two decks, one above the other, topped by a “cover” on which he could restore his private rear garden.

Krogius recently reached out to Nitardy’s son, Walter, now 81, to ask if the family had any surviving records from the time. Krogius and Walter had played stickball together as teenagers in the streets of the Heights. Walter said that his parents were eternally upset by the destruction of the family property and, unfortunately, his mother had destroyed all her husband’s files on the Promenade, including his correspondence with Moses.

One engineer, S. Starr Walbridge of the lead engineering firm Andrews and Clark, wrote to Krogius in the early ’80s to claim sole design credit for both the cantilevered BQE and for “a pedestrian walk… above the upper road.” His claim was refuted, as detailed in a 2010 Heights Press article by Krogius:

“Walbridge went on to describe how he had discussed with Julian Michele, the artist who did the firm’s renderings, how the highway decks should be supported and urged him to show them as cantilevers instead of carried on columns or stilts.

Walbridge supplied a great deal of other information about the cantilever and the Promenade’s construction. But when I called Michele for corroboration, he refused to comment on Walbridge’s claim other than to say, ‘We were all good friends at the time and I hate to think we’re old and cranky now and turning nasty.’”

Walbridge is credited, however, with having persuaded Hastings Pavement to go back into business to produce its special hexagonal paving blocks for the Promenade.

According to Ernest Clark of Andrews and Clark, it was Phillips H. Lovering, a Brooklyn-born civil engineer, who worked out the mathematics of the BQE’s cantilevered design. But both men maintained that the Promenade’s design was collaborative.

Additionally, the BHA has at times claimed undue credit for the Promenade, Krogius says, though it was instrumental in pushing the BQE’s path west to Furman. Moses’ engineers had actually studied six different routes for the BQE in the Heights, and Moses favored running it south along Hicks and then east on Tillary, which would have split the neighborhood (similar to how the BQE “ditch” splits Cobble Hill). The plan “scared the hell out of the BHA,” Krogius says.

“There is a case to be made that Moses was punishing the Heights [with this plan],” Krogius says. In 1938 Moses had planned a bridge from Brooklyn Heights to the Battery. An unknown, unhappy source tipped off First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the plan, and she criticized it in her popular column in the New York World Telegram — effectively putting an end to the idea. Moses was bitterly chagrined because his work was buried, literally. “You can’t see a tunnel,” says Krogius.

What went on in the weeks before and after the public hearing and the official release of the final design has been lost. “The holes are unfillable at this point because Earle Andrews, the only man who really knew, is long since dead,” Krogius says.

Above, the semi-annual Promenade art shows drew all kinds of visitors in the 1970s and early ‘80s until they were discontinued for becoming too tawdry. Photo taken in May, 1982. Henrik Krogius.

A Vain Search

In the ’80s, Krogius had an idea for a book — to find other architecture around the world that mirrored the Promenade’s combination of highway with public esplanade. The proposal landed him three grants, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But the idea “didn’t pan out.” After extensive research and travel, Krogius concluded that the Promenade was one of a kind. In 1993 he put his research into a 10-part series for the Heights Press called “Shaped by the Auto.”

The research Krogius conducted in the ’70s and ’80s — his interviews, correspondences and conclusions — have now been compiled into a book, The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (108 pages, The History Press), due out this week for the 60th anniversary of the Promenade’s official opening on Dec. 7. It contains several dozen black-and-white photos taken by Krogius and others over the lifespan of the Promenade, a nostalgic record of a special place.

“I wanted to write it to solidify my claim to be the historian of the Promenade,” says Krogius.

Krogius is still a resident of Brooklyn Heights, and editor of the Heights Press. His career spanned 27 years at NBC.

Far left, decks of the BQE are built. Bent reinforcement rods indicate the Promenade to come on top. Old warehouses line the opposite side of Furman Street. Photo circa 1949. Louise Casey.

* * *

About these ads

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts, Brooklyn Authors, Community News, History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s