Historic Non-Structural Detail: Prettifying

by Don Friedman on August 17, 2016

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This one is really for the native New Yorkers, as the detail in question is related to a quirk in our local history. That’s a picture of the retaining wall at the side of a highway ramp in Brooklyn. (Click to enlarge.)

Highway planning and construction in New York bear the indelible stamp of Robert Moses. Regardless of your opinion of him (and I’m not a fan), he laid out the highways within the city and in much of the surrounding area as they are today, and he was responsible for managing their design and construction in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Some designer who worked for him, almost certainly in the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, came up with the idea of putting a brick veneer on the concrete retaining walls that are a part of any urban highway. The veneer is one wythe thick and typically has running bond for blocks-long stretches alternating with groups of diagonal half-bricks that create vertical corrugated bands.

The picture above shows the running-bond veneer on the left and a diagonal-brick band just to the left of the tree trunk. What you’re seeing on the right is the bare concrete exposed where the veneer has failed and been removed, an increasingly-common sight since the 1980s. The vertical stripes on the whitish face of the concrete are dovetail inserts that catch ties that stabilize the brick. They’re dark because they’ve rusted; rusting of the ties is what has led to the veneer failure. I’m no insider, but I doubt that the highway maintenance budgets of the city and state have a single dime intended for veneer repair, so once the ties fail, the veneer is probably gone forever.

It’s hard to say that the brick really made the highways any better looking than bare concrete would have. Highways are utilitarian structures and the brick was a blank veneer with the diagonal-brick bands as its only, and minimal, ornamentation. I’ve seen a few mentions of the gradual disappearance of the brick but no elegies: it was not loved enough to make a difference in how people felt about the highways.

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