Tag Archives: Verrazano Narrows Bridge

The story of how Idlewild Airport was renamed for John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was memorialized in dozens of ways following his assassination on November 22, 1963. None of these are more vital to the daily lives of New Yorkers than John F. Kennedy International Airport — or Kennedy Airport or simply JFK — the busiest airport in the Northeast.

You may not realize how quickly it was renamed for the fallen president. On November 15, 1963, President Kennedy left Idlewild Airport (the airport’s former name) after a short stay in the city. Six weeks later, that airport would be named after him.

New York joined the nation in mourning following the televised funeral of President Kennedy on November 25, 1963. Thousands watched the ceremony from a large television screen hanging in Grand Central Terminal. Traffic stopped in Times Square and Boy Scout buglers played taps from atop the old Hotel Astor. All airport traffic at Idlewild stopped at noon.

New York Like A Vast Church ran the headline in the New York Times.

Calls immediately rose to memorialize the president in the city. On December 4, less than two weeks after Kennedy’s death, Mayor Robert Wagner announced that he would submit a bill to the city council to honor Kennedy with a name change to Idlewild.

Unfortunately, these ultimately successful calls to rename New York’s largest airport came at the cost of obliterating the memory of another notable American.

Wired New York

Idlewild was the popular name for the airport which opened on July 1, 1948, because it was built upon a former golf course and luxury accommodation of that name. According to the Times, “The name Idlewild is believed to have been inspired by the fact that the site at that time was wild and that the hotel and park constituted a recreational facility for the idle rich.”

But its full, official name was New York International Airport, Anderson Field, named for Major General Alexander E. Anderson, a decorated World War I veteran and Queens businessman. Unfortunately Anderson had few proponents fighting to keep his name on the airport by 1963.

The following week, “[i]n an action marked by solemnity and silent prayer, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to change the name of New York International Airport at Idlewild, Queens, to the John F. Kennedy International Airport.” [source]

It was revealed then that city officials wished to name the airport after Kennedy even more quickly than that. Indeed, the idea had been unofficially suggested hours after Kennedy’s assassination but it had taken the extra time to get the official approval from his widow (and future New York City resident) Jackie Kennedy.

Photographer Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

By Wednesday, December 18, the name change had been formally approved and workmen busily rushed to change all the signs at the airport.  Idlewild officially became John F. Kennedy Airport in a ceremony held on Christmas Eve 1963.

The president’s younger brother Edward Kennedy was in attendance, helping to unveil a 242-foot-long sign emblazoned with the new name. Their brother Robert F. Kennedy was scheduled to attend but canceled.

You would think such a name change to be relatively uncontroversial but this was not the case.

In an editorial which ran a few days after the ceremony, the New York Times remarked: “The speedy change of name — whether it be of an airport or a bridge or a park or a cape — reflects the love that millions of people all over the world had for Present Kennedy; but, as we have previously stated, it is only debasing the subject of our grief to attach his name so hastily to a miscellaneous collection of public works, almost as if we were afraid that without these tangible reminders he would be soon forgotten. “

Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times

And President Kennedy almost got his name upon a newly built bridge in the New York City area, too.

That same month, a Staten Island politician filed a bill to the New York state legislature to name a new bridge being built in the Narrows after Kennedy. “Assemblyman Edward J. Amann Jr … profiled at Albany for introduction into the Legislature in January a bill calling for changing the name of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the John. F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.” [source]

By the time it officially opened the following year, the Verrazano had kept its tribute name to the 16th century European explorer. But New York does have a bridge named for a Kennedy — the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (the former Triborough Bridge).

Below: A month after the dedication, Robert did stop by the airport named after his brother. 

JFK International Airport Chamber of Commerce

A very happy 50th birthday to the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge! Ten facts you may not know about the bridge’s origins

[Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.]

The new span in 1964, photographed by the Wurts Brothers (MCNY)

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge — the first land crossing between Staten Island and the rest of New York City — officially opened for traffic fifty years ago today. It is one of America’s greatest bridges and a graceful monumental presence in New York Harbor.  Below is a list of ten things you may not have known about the bridge.  In addition, I’m also including our podcast on the bridge’s history via SoundCloud. (You can also download it from iTunes — it’s episode #119 — or from here.)

1)  The Tunnel to Staten Island
People have been dreaming of spanning the Narrows for several decades before the bridge was finally constructed. In New York’s subway fervor of the early 1920s, Mayor John Hylan authorized a tunnel be built to connect Staten Island to Brooklyn, ostensibly to link it to the city’s expanding subway network. Due to massive cost, however, the project was cancelled. For many years, the remnants of the aborted tunnels on either side of the Narrows were referred to as “Hylan’s Holes.”

2)  Verrazzano-on-Hudson
Giovanni da Verrazzano, who explored the shores of the North American continent in 1524, might have lent his name to the bridge which became the George Washington Bridge, a few decades before the Narrows Bridge was completed. The suggestion was made by a Newark resident and was at least passingly considered that the New York Times ran an article about it: “WOULD NAME NEW SPAN VERRAZANO BRIDGE.”  The article casts aspersions upon the notion that the explorer would ever be seriously considered enough to warrant his own bridge.

[Aerial view of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New York Harbor.]

Overlooking New York Harbor, Staten Island (and Fort Wadsworth) to the left. (MCNY)

3)  What’s In A Name? Tanto!
The Florentine explorer had much symbolic value to Italian New Yorkers, and in 1960, the Italian Historical Society of America managed to convince Governor Nelson Rockefeller to apply the name to the brand new bridge about to go under construction.

Some were not pleased with what many considered mere political appeasement. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the next move is to rename the Hudson River,” grumbled the vice president of the Staten Island chamber of commerce. [source]  Gripes over the name continued well up to its opening and beyond.  A couple weeks before its opening, one naysayer wrote the Times to propose alternate names: “Let’s call it Freedom Gate or Liberty Gate.” [source]

4) Spell Check
Even then, there was some debate about the proper spelling of the explorer’s last name — Verrazzano or Verrazano. (There was even a small, if vocal, group for Verazzano.) Official construction signs did say Verrazzano, in keeping with the traditional Italian spelling. However, despite strong support for the double Z version, the shorter spelling eventually won out.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

5) The Grand Builders
Although this would be one of the final great projects overseen by Robert Moses, it’s also the final project of New York’s great bridge and tunnel builder Ottmar Ammann.  He died on September 22, 1965, less than a year after the bridge’s opening.

Milton Brumer is sometimes overshadowed by those two great icons of city building, but the chief engineer of the Verrazano-Narrows had worked with Ammann on almost every one of his projects and was probably more involved in the day-to-day operations than his boss.  In total, there were 200 engineers employed on building the bridge, on top of the hundreds of construction workers employed to bridge the Narrows.

Verrazano Narrows Bridge, general view  from Ft. Hamilton S.E.
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

6) Curvature of the Earth
When it opened on November 21, 1962, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, so long, in fact, that bridge engineers had to take the curvature of the planet into account in its design.  As a result the tops of the towers are slightly farther apart than the bases. Or to put it another way, if the Narrows were drained, the towers would appear to slightly lean away from each other.

7) A Big Boy, and Loud Too
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge weighs 1,265,000 tons — the longest suspension bridge in the world at its completion, surpassing the Golden Gate Bridge — but was not the most welcomed neighbor to the areas of Bay Ridge and western Staten Island when ground was broken in August 1959.  Many residents railed against its necessity, the displacement of businesses, even the constant noise assault. “That bridge — who needs it?” [source]  Once construction began, however, many business owners benefited from the influx of hundreds of workers entering the area.

Three workers were killed during the construction of the bridge, including young Gerard McKee who fell to his death in an accident which could have been prevented.  His death sparked an improvement in safety procedures at the bridge.  He’s memorably commemorated by Gay Talese, who closely documented the construction of the span in his classic book The Bridge.

Fort Lafayette, 1861, from Harper’s Weekly (courtesy NYPL)

8) Goodbye Fort Lafayette
In building the Brooklyn anchorage, crews swept away the remainder of old Fort Lafayette, an entrenchment built during the War of 1812.  During the Civil War, Confederates were held prisoner here, including Robert Cobb Kennedy, who attempted to burn down New York during the Great Conspiracy of 1864. During the two World Wars, it held reserve ammunition. Moses personally fought an effort to turn the fort into a night club and now had a hand in dismantling it entirely.

Not only was the fort destroyed, the entire island on which it sat was virtually erased.  In addition, areas near Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth were cleared away to make way for the bridge’s approaches. Perhaps to nobody’s surprise, the construction company tasked with clearing away the old fort employed the son-in-law of Robert Moses.

9) First Class Reception
The U.S. government did something a little different to honor the opening of the bridge — it issued a postage stamp featuring the bridge, to be sold on opening day.  For its 50 year anniversary this year, the Postal Service replicated the honor with an anniversary stamp.  The original stamp was for five cents.  The commemorative stamp is for $5.60 priority mail. (Times change.)

Photo NY Daily News/Leonard Detrick

10) Opening Day, First Traffic Jam
The opening of the bridge not only brought great pride to New York City, although a small number of protesters noted that the span did not have pedestrian walkways or bike paths (and it still doesn’t).  Among the dignitaries as the ribbon cutting ceremony were Governor Rockefeller, the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Spellman, Robert Moses and Mayor Robert Wagner.  They were all transported over the bridge in a somber 52-limousine procession.  The press of vehicles was poorly handled for it resulted in “a traffic jam … a half-mile beyond the point where the ribbon-cutting ceremony had been held.”

The first ‘regular’ toll-paying person over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was a carload of young men in rented tuxedos (pictured above), “driving a pale blue Cadillac convertible with flags flapping from the fenders,” who had parked behind the toll gate for an entire week to earn the special privilege.”

Below: The bridge’s most famous film appearance in Saturday Night Fever — but don’t watch if you haven’t yet seen the entire film!

Over the river: Six New York bridges under construction

Manhattan Bridge, June 5, 1908 Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives

Queensboro Bridge, August 8, 1907 Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives

George Washington Bridge, 1927, Courtesy Life

Brooklyn Bridge, late 1870s

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, 1960, photo by Matthew Proujansky

Williamsburg Bridge, 1902, courtesy Shorpy

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: Robert Moses, Bay Ridge, and the birth of America’s longest suspension bridge


With Fort Wadsworth to its side, the last of Othmar Ammann’s New York bridges jets out over the Narrows.

PODCAST The longest suspension bridge in the United States, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was one of Robert Moses’ most ambitious projects, a commanding structure that would finally link Staten Island with Brooklyn. Today it soars above New York Harbor as one of the finest examples of architecture from the 1960s. But it didn’t get built without some serious community outcry, from a neighborhood that would be partially destroyed in its wake — Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

This is the tale of a 16th century explorer, a 20th century builder and a timeless marvel of the harbor, with a design that takes the curvature of the earth — and one very, very large boat — into consideration.

ALSO: The bridge’s finest film performance, with co-star John Travolta.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

This is Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed into the Narrows in 1524, decades before Henry Hudson. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and thought the harbor was a big lake, so he left.

An existing sketch of David Steinman’s proposal for the Narrows span. Called the Liberty Bridge, it was a hybrid of the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge and features bells that would ring out periodically through the harbor. This came very close to being implemented, but the project died in Congress thanks to a New York representative: young Fiorello LaGuardia.

From a Getty Image we find the all-powerful Robert Moses discussing his project on the eve of its opening, November 1964. Many dreamed of spanning the Narrows, but only Moses had accumulated enough influence the see the project to fruition. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Along the Brooklyn shore in 1914 with old Fort Lafayette out on an old reef. The fort was demolished to make way for the base of the bridge. (Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

The view in 1963 and the bridge without its roadway, which would be delivered by barges in specifically crafted pieces and hoisted in place. (Courtesy petepix75/Flickr, and has some other great old New York pics in his photostream)

When the bridge opened in November 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, overtaking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The Verrazano-Narrows held that title until 1981 when the Humber Bridge in the UK overtook it. (Pic courtesy NYPL)

From overhead, it’s easy to see the challenges faced by Ammann and engineers in designing and constructing the bridge.

A newsreel from 1963, outlining the construction of the bridge and illustrating the dangers workers faced in building it.

The bridge plays a prominent role — and a tragic one — in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

A deleted scene from the film prominently highlights the main character’s obsession with the bridge:

There are some terrific photos and additional history at Forgotten New York on the opening of the bridge. There’s even some aftermath photos of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after the city ripped away several homes.

You can take a preview peek of Gay Talese’s The Bridge here.

And if you ever wondered what it looks like to ride the Queen Mary 2 underneath the bridge, here you go:

NOTE: We mention the Outerbridge in the podcast, the official name of which is ‘the Outerbridge Crossing’ to sidestep that Outerbridge Bridge issue. Many refer to it as just ‘the Outerbridge’ to save the syllables.

Polish heroes, unliked dams and peculiar misspellings: Origins of ten New York City bridge names

The newly built High Bridge over the Harlem River, as it looked in 1849. (NYPL)

Here’s a handy primer to ten of the most strangely named bridges in the New York City metropolitan area. Most of these names are probably familiar to you, and you probably pass over many of these bridges without giving a second thought to their name origin. Some are simply named for small neighborhoods or geographical features; others share the names of men that occasionally have little to no connection to the bridge at all. May you never drive over a body of water without being informed!

Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (Bronx/Queens) This intriguing span by Othmar Ammann (builder of six NYC bridges) has a slightly off-kilter name. Whitestone is a neighborhood in Queens and also gives its name to an expressway. To be consistent, shouldn’t it be the Bronx-Queens Bridge? Perhaps, but the bridge entrance in the Bronx is west of the neighborhood of Throggs Neck, and that neighborhood already has a bridge named after it — almost (see below).

Goethals Bridge (Staten Island/New Jersey) The oldest vehicular bridge in Staten Island, this span over the Arthur Kill honors Brooklyn-born George Washington Goethals (at right) who helped construct the Panama Canal. He was also the first consulting engineer for an early version of Port Authority, not their only former employee to give their name to a bridge (see below).

High Bridge (Manhattan/Bronx) The oldest bridge in New York, created in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct water system, is certainly high. But its name has a practical implication. Its creators considered a ‘low bridge’ — literally closer to the Harlem River — but that would require a draw mechanism for boat traffic. The ‘high’ bridge could transport water unimpeded.

Kosciuszko Bridge (Brooklyn/Queens) The brother of the Pulaski Bridge (see below), this oft-mispronounced crossing is named for Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish volunteer in George Washington’s Continental Army who went on to lead battalions in Poland against Russian forces in the 1790s. Like the Marquis de Lafayette, you can find his name in towns and streets across the United States.

Lord Byron once said, “That sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear – Kosciuszko!” He was probably not referring to the multiple pronunciations. (You’ll hear it either as “kahs-kee-OOSH-koh” or, more accutrately, “kohsh-CHOOSH-koh”.) [source]

Macombs Dam Bridge (Manhattan/Bronx) This bright swing bridge is familiar to anybody whose been to Yankees Stadium, hovering over the Harlem River. But it harbors perhaps the most violent history of any bridge in New York. Robert Macomb was a miller who received permission from the state in 1813 to place a dam in the Harlem. A private toll bridge sat above the dam, operated by Macomb, making him quite wealthy. Local residents, angered by the useless, ill maintained dam and the hazardous conditions it created, literally took axes to it in 1829.

Outerbridge Bridge (Staten Island/New Jersey) People really call it the Outerbridge Crossing or simply the Outerbridge. But if you’re being truly consistent, then it has to be Outerbridge Bridge. Because Outerbridge was an actual person — Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, a Staten Islander who became the first president of Port Authority. Has there ever been a more perfect name for that particular function? As a bridge name, however, it continues to cause confusion.

Pulaski Bridge (Brooklyn/Queens) This critical pass over Newtown Creek separating the two boroughs is yet another bridge named for a Polish hero, in this case Casimir Pułaski (at left). A revolutionary fighting against Russian forces, Pulaski was a political hot potato. But Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin were fans. He was recruited for the American Revolutionary War and once saved the life of George Washington (who also has his own New York City bridge) before dying in battle in Georgia.

Throgs Neck Bridge (Bronx/Queens) Inspired by the name of the neighborhood in which it passes — Throggs Neck. Popular legend has it that Robert Moses thought the extra ‘G’ made the name too long, so he chucked it. This would not be Moses’ first dance with spelling controversies. (See below) Whether with one G or two, Throg/gs Neck traces its name to an early settler here, the Rev. John Throggmorton. [Read more about it here.]

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Brooklyn/Staten Island) The longest suspension bridge in the United State, this glorious span, the last by Ammann, is named both for the slender pinch of water it rises over and the 16th century European explorer (Giovanni da Verrazzano) who first sailed through it. If you sometimes can’t remember how to spell the explorer’s name, you’re not alone. Long after they decided on a name, advocates debated whether he had one or two Zs in the name. (Read more about the debate here.) The bridge goes by one Z; the explorer is frequently spelled with two.

Fun fact: This is the only New York City bridge named for somebody who is believed to have been murdered and cannibalized in the West Indies.

Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge (Queens) This small bridge, spanning Jamaica Bay between the neighborhoods of Howard Beach and Broad Channel, is named for Queens native and U.S. House Representative Joseph Addabbo, a feisty Democrat who frequently sparred with Ronald Reagan. I put it last on this list specifically because it seems that all the Ds and Bs that appear in Mr. Addabbo’s name have successfully made it onto the name of the bridge as well.

A Fort Hamilton axe murderer — and a missing chess set


Sure, the Narrows looks all nice and calm, until an axe murderer comes along. (Pic courtesy Library of Congress)

The image above is an 1861 illustration — a Currier & Ives illustration, no less — of the lovely waters of the Narrows and, behind it, the bucolic loveliness of Staten Island, as seen from the shores of Brooklyn. Out of sight behind the viewer is Fort Hamilton, the coastal fortification completed in 1835 and still operated today as an army base. It gives its name to the surrounding neighborhood, often considered part of Bay Ridge. That floating fort you see in the water is the older Fort Lafayette, which was regrettably demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

See the lovely shore road to the right, offering abundant views of the harbor? And see that charming family, enjoying a lovely walk? Two years earlier, this area was sight of a vicious crime — a bloody axe murder.

Late in the evening of June 10th, 1859, with the Narrows lit only with lights from docked ships, two young men were stumbling down a road near Fort Hamilton — most likely the one illustrated — heavily sloshed from ‘intoxicating liquors’. (Are there any other kind?) Some kind of a disagreement took place between the two men — one James Quinlan and the very unfortunately named Patrick Kilboy.

In the heat of the moment, Quinlan picked up an axe and, in a drunken rage, he sent it into Kilboy’s skull. Patrick, bleeding and near death, managed to make it home to his wife, where he died.

These kinds of unfortunate crimes happened often in Brooklyn history and frequently along its busy shoreline. Fort Hamilton was a fully functioning military base but obviously drew its share of rowdies. Things would become increasing intense at the base in the following years with the Civil War; Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island would be recruited to protect the harbor from Confederate invasion during the war.

This brutal crime is briefly mentioned in the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the names of the perpetrator and victim have been totally forgotten. But two other men associated with the crime pop up several years later, in a more amusing crime caper.

The justice officiating the conviction of Kilboy’s murderer was one C.W. Church. In his murder investigation, he found one witness, named James Ferry, who must have been unwilling to testify, as it seems Ferry was forcibly brought in, then arrested.

Several summers later, on July 17, 1867, according to another Brooklyn Eagle article, the judge discovered that somebody had burgled his prized chess set. Whether it be some kind of revenge crime or mere serendipity, the thief was later captured and identified as James Ferry — either the same man Church had called in as witness to the Kilboy killing, or a startling coincidence.

The Eagle’s police blotter sums it all up: “Ferry is now under checkmate, awaiting examination.”

PODCAST: New York City Marathon

Photo from Flickr

A true five-borough episode! The New York City Marathon hosts thousands of runners from all over the world, the dream project of the New York Road Runners and in particular one Fred Lebow, an employee of the Fashion District turned athletic icon. Find out how he launched a massive race in the midst of bankrupt New York.

Also — our guest host Tanya Bielski-Braham takes us on a speedy tour of the course, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Tavern on the Green.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

The race route. The official New York City website also has a detailed map.

Fred Lebow joined the New York Road Runners in 1969 and helped turn the marathon into a premier event for New York.

One of the marathon’s true superstars, Bill Rodgers (that’s him wearing number 3) won the marathon the first four years of its existence as a tri-borough event, from 1976-79. In 1980, he placed 5th, handing the mantle to rising star Alberto Salazar.

A clearly pained Salazar fights his way to the finish line during the 1981 race, on his way to setting a world’s record.

Sure, Salazar’s good, but his co-winner in 1980, Grete Waitz, would be the all-time New York City Marathon champ, winning nine times. (Pic courtesy Sports Illustrated.)

Rosie Ruiz, looking totally exhausted form feigning her completion of the Boston Marathon. It was later discovered that she had also faked her run in the New York marathon.

The statue of Fred Lebow stands watch for every finisher of the marathon. For the rest of the year, this tribute stands at the Engineer’s Gate in Central Park.

Fred and Grete triumphantly cross the finish line in 1992.

A few months after giving birth, British runner Paula Radcliffe ran away with the victory at last year’s race. (Courtesy Ed Costello Flickr)

Paula with the men’s winner Martin Lel from Kenya (Pic courtesy iaff.org)

Our guest host, Tanya Bielski-Braham, at the completion of the race last year, swathed in a “space blanket”

Go to the New York Road Runners website for information on this Sunday’s race, including places to watch it from the sidelines.

I highly recommend two recent releases about the marathon: the book “A Race Like No Other” by Liz Robbins, a great profile on the 2007 race with lots of history nuggets thrown in; and the new documentary Run For Your Life about Fred Lebow, new to DVD this week. You seriously have to check out all the great footage from the 1970s, particularly the shots of the Playboy Bunnies posing for pictures for the 1972 “Crazylegs” race.