The Story Behind the Design

Engineers or architects?

Who is best suited to build a large bridge? Although this does not seem like a pressing issue in 2000, there was an emerging turf battle between opposing forces in the early 1900s. While European bridges were still designed by architects, engineers in the US were increasingly interested in being the designers of bridges and providing their own esthetic. The grandeur of a suspension bridge and its dependence on understanding complex civil engineering techniques made engineers the de facto designers of the structural aspect of these bridges. But architects still wished to contribute to the design elements and to keep the bridge as part of the architectural fabric of the community.

When the Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission began the process of contracting for the bridge, they initially hired Ralph Modjeski and his assistants, George Webster and Lawrence Ball to lead the project. But they then hired University of Pennsylvania Professor Paul Philippe Cret as the chief architect.

In some ways this choice was odd. Cret was born in France in 1876 and he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lyons and then in Paris. He came to the US and lived in Philadelphia. During the First World War, he returned to France and became a war hero. But after the war he returned to Philadelphia to work at Penn. He designed some well regarded urban structures but had precious little experience in bridges by the time he was brought on board in 1920. Cret wished to establish a good relationship with the engineers for the bridge and the record of their correspondence shows that they worked well together. Interestingly, Modjeski also trained in France, but he studied at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees. Aside from building the longest suspension bridge in the world, Cret and Modjeski had to try to work out a system for integrating architecture and engineering; a way to blend modernity with its lack of appreciation for excess detail with a desire for a classical monument to justify the investment of time and money.

The drawings by Cret for the masonry parts of the bridge (the anchorages in Philadelphia and Camden and the bases of the towers in the river) are quite exquisite. They are available for view at the Philadelphia Athenaeum and the degree of artistry and attention to detail show that the design of the bridge was not governed by what people could appreciate at 50 miles per hour. There was no attempt to hide the massive structure. Rather there was an effort to make it beautiful. The background image on this page is taken from the cover of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. The accompanying article by Jonathan E. Farnham was very helpful in my understanding of the process that led to the final distribution of work between the architects and the engineers. 

Looking back to earlier major bridges leads inevitably to the Brooklyn Bridge which opened in 1883. Although it spans a smaller river (the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn) to link boroughs of New York City, it was a very important structure. More than half again as long as any prior bridge of its type, It was designed by Roebling who was grievously injured during the bridge's construction. In the modern picture to the right, the Gothic quality of the piers is apparent. The Manhattan Bridge which was completed in 1909 was a more immediate predecessor to the Ben Franklin. In fact, some of the engineering talent that built the Manhattan was recruited for the Ben Franklin. It is clearly more modern looking but it still uses a great deal of ornamentation--especially at the anchorages. The arch and colonnade were added in the late teens. This sort of thing was going out of vogue in the 1920s and Philadelphia's bridge was meant to be in the vanguard of the newer generation of major suspension bridges. Indeed it still looks modern by comparison to the Golden Gate (1937) and the Verranzano Narrows (1964) Bridges which are considerably longer and newer. Cret himself was critical of the ornament in the Manhattan Bridge.