Want to Build a Bridge?

This Friday, on Dec. 19, New York's Williamsburg Bridge will turn 100. Leffert L. Buck, the chief engineer, finished his plans for the bridge in 1896. At the time, the Brooklyn Bridge, then only 13 years old, was already carrying considerably more people and vehicles than its builders had predicted. To accommodate the expected heavy commuter traffic between the Lower East Side and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Buck envisioned a bridge approximately half again as wide as its more famous neighbor, with 10 rather than six lanes for trains, trolleys and carriages. There would also be two paths for pedestrians. (The Brooklyn Bridge has only one.)

While the Williamsburg Bridge would never rival John and Washington Roebling's creation in the hearts of New Yorkers, it did find other ways to distinguish itself. At 1,600 feet, its main span is four and a half feet longer than that of the Brooklyn Bridge. For 20 years, in fact, it held the title of the world's longest suspension bridge.

Even if it were shorter, though, the Williamsburg Bridge would still be worthy of celebration. After all, in exchange for an original investment of $24 million (including land) and a more recent sum of $1 billion for repairs and renovation, the city has received 10 decades of faithful service with only minor interruptions.

So, what's the best way to commemorate the Williamsburg Bridge, its creators and those who continue to maintain it?

For those in New York, the most obvious way is to stroll across the bridge. Soak in the panoramic views and open space the walk takes only 20 minutes. It's worth remembering that for many years, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, the bridge provided New Yorkers a rare and welcome escape from the city's heat and crowding. (If your schedule is tight, ride a bike over one of the newly reopened bike lanes.)

Don't forget to look at the bridge itself, both up close and from a distance. Bridges are among the friendliest and most revealing teachers of engineering. Like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (both visible farther down the East River), the Williamsburg Bridge offers a primer on the basic elements of a suspension bridge. These include imposing towers at each end of the main span placed as far apart as possible to keep the waterway unobstructed. The towers are tall enough to allow the cables to drape at the optimum curvature while still suspending the roadway high enough above the water. What you can't see as easily are the two massive masonry-enclosed anchorages, one on each side of the river. The ends of the four cables are secured to the anchorages to counterbalance the weight of the main span and all its traffic.

For people who enjoy a more hands-on approach, you can honor the bridge by building your own model of it. Click on the link above right, under "Multimedia," for instructions for cutting up the Op-Ed page (not something that's generally encouraged) and constructing a smaller version of Leffert Buck's creation. It won't be easy. You'll need a copying machine, some heavy paper (I used cover stock), glue, tape, an X-Acto knife and patience. But think of it this way. It took seven years to build a bridge that's lasted a century. You can have your own version in only a few hours and who knows how long the pleasure will last.

David Macaulay is author, most recently, of "Mosque."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company