1959: One Z or Two – A Bridge Is Born

August 13, 1959

In New York City, construction began on a major bridge that would provide an urgently sought-after vehicular connection between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island at a tidal strait in New York Harbor known as The Narrows. This planned structure was named after Giovanni de Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who in 1524 became the first European to sail into New York Harbor.

The hour-long groundbreaking ceremony for this construction project was attended by approximately 1,000 people, and it took place at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island which had been selected as the western terminus of the bridge. As he indicated in a telegram read out loud on his behalf at the event, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was not able to attend due to a prior schedule commitment.

Those public officials who were on hand for the festivities included New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner; New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.; Albert V. Maniscalco, borough president of Staten Island; Robert Moses, chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; and S. Sloan Colt, chairman of the Port of New York Authority. They and other dignitaries used chrome-plated spades to turn over the soil to initiate the building of what was formally designated the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

If there were any notable controversies surrounding that day’s ceremony, they involved lingering disputes over what the bridge should actually be called. A few groups wanted the structure to be redubbed the Narrows Bridge without anything else included. Others wished to have the bridge become the namesake of Staten Island. During the ceremony, this preference was memorably represented when a plane that had been chartered by the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce flew in the skies above with the banner “Name It the Staten Island Bridge.”

The most heated name controversy of them all, however, was arguably the fact that were was only one Z in the spelling of Verrazzano in the ceremony program and other official documents even though the explorer for whom the bridge was named had two Zs in his last name. The omission of one of those Zs could be traced to a typo in the original construction contract for the bridge, yet this error stayed intact until a corrective measure signed into law by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2018 finally added that missing Z to the official name of the structure.

All of the speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony evidently stayed clear of the naming disputes and did not even mention “Verrazzano” in their respective remarks. The speakers instead focused on other aspects involving the project, particularly the benefits that the bridge could make possible by more closely linking Staten Island with the other boroughs. “Now we are on our way to surmounting the barrier of isolation, isolated from the rest of the city,” proclaimed Maniscalco. “This bridge will be as mighty a factor in shaping Staten Island’s history as was nature herself.”

Over the next few years, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was built with the prolific and acclaimed Swiss-born engineer Othmar Ammann serving as the senior partner for the project. Other key figures in the construction of the bridge included chief engineer Milton Brumer, construction engineer John West Kinney, design engineer Leopold Just, safety engineer Alonzo Dickinson, and project engineers Herb Rothman and Frank L. Stahl.

The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was officially opened to traffic during a dedication ceremony in the fall of 1964. Along with cutting the ribbon at this ceremony, Wagner read a telegram from President Lyndon B. Johnson that hailed the bridge as “a structure of breathtaking beauty and superb engineering.”

The bridge, carrying a total of 13 lanes of I-278, has become one the major linkages of the Interstate Highway System in the eastern United States. In addition, it fulfilled its promise of connecting Staten Island with the remainder of New York City and helped increase development in the borough.

Panorama of the bay with Fort Wadsworth (foreground) on the Narrows, under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

At the time of its opening, the structure was the world’s longest suspension bridge. It held that record until being surpassed by the Humber Bridge in England in 1981. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge does retain the distinction of having the longest main span (4,260 feet, or 1,298 meters) in the Americas.

For more information on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, please check out https://structurae.net/en/structures/verrazzano-narrows-bridge and https://new.mta.info/bridges-and-tunnels/about/verrazzano-narrows-bridge.

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