CLASS NOTES FEATURES
 
ENGINEER TRACKS BRIDGES' TWISTS AND TURNS

Photograph by Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

By Robin Finn

This article, reprinted with permission, was published in The New York Times Dec. 15, 2000, three days after high winds of up to 62 mph wreaked havoc in Manhattan.

Think back to Tuesday, when 60-mile-an-hour gusts of winter wind menaced the necklace of suspension bridges that connect Manhattan to the world, upending trailer trucks like Tinkertoys on the Throgs Neck, shredding construction tarpaulins, bedeviling travelers.

Herbert B. Rothman '44, the engineer entrusted with rehabilitating these gigantic geriatric city spans, thinks back but does not flinch. "What wind?" he deadpans.

Wasn't he worried that one of his patients, perhaps his favorite, the touchy Whitestone, might collapse and make him famous for all the wrong reasons, the only way he and others of his ilk ever activate the fame meter? According to Mr. Rothman, engineers are nerds by definition, introverts by nature: in the background if they build it right, in the spotlight when they build it wrong.

Mr. Rothman, are you calling yourself a nerd?

"Was and still am," he says. "But I left my glasses and plastic pocket protector at home today."

But seriously. Assuming we're going to continue trusting our bridges to a self-professed nerd, did Mr. Rothman fear for their safety on Tuesday? Not in the slightest. This bridge doctor—his 1944 degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was in civil engineering—never left his office at Weidlinger Associates on Hudson Street to check on his charges. He let the computers do it.

"Wind gusts are nothing," snorts Mr. Rothman, hoisting a chunk of steel that came from the Golden Gate Bridge with one hand like a barbell. (Yes, he has consulted on the Golden Gate.)

"It takes a genuine wind to bring down a bridge—except for the Tacoma Narrows, but it had a fatal flaw: girders instead of trusses. That's one that made Leon Moisseff famous," he announces.

But Mr. Moisseff designed the Manhattan Bridge, too, and O.H. Ammann's design for the Whitestone was a spinoff of Mr. Moisseff's Tacoma Narrows; does that make them suspect? It has been Mr. Rothman's job to keep them above suspicion; New York City's needy bridge system keeps him hopping at 76.

Mr. Rothman and other Weidlinger trouble-shooters have been rehabilitating the Manhattan Bridge for the past two decades. Its external subway lines, a foolish but not fatal design flaw, have skewed it like an amusement park ride. It is, he says, too solid to collapse, and will be better than new once $646 million in repair work is finished in 2008.

After a planned $70 million streamlining, so will the more vulnerable Whitestone, which Mr. Rothman has been tinkering with since 1957. He estimates that Whitestone had "a slight probability" of being blown down before he fitted it in 1985 with a 94-ton tuned mass damper—in layman's terms, an anti-wobble device similar to the one "that keeps people in the top of the Citicorp building from getting seasick."

The last time Mr. Rothman, creaky after a hip replacement but uninterested in retirement, scrambled onto the Whitestone in a gale, his glasses flew away and the rest of him almost followed. He was checking whether the bridge might be in danger of twisting itself into oblivion the way its thinner cousin in Tacoma did 60 years ago. "After that, I told them to install some instruments up there so I wouldn't have to make spot checks: by religion, I'm a devout coward."

But he has "walked steel" on every bridge he's ever worked on, including the Verrazano-Narrows, where the cables soared 700 feet: not bad for someone with mismatched legs from childhood polio whose fear of heights discouraged him from climbing trees. "When it's important to you, you just do it," says Mr. Rothman.

His latest design is an earthquake-proof single-tower suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. "It'll stand up when San Francisco doesn't," boasts Mr. Rothman, who indulged his creative side in the cable configuration. "From whatever angle, it looks like diamonds."

Mr. Rothman was raised in Queens; his St. Albans neighborhood was composed of family farms. His father and uncle were architects, and he felt obligated to become one, too, until he realized he had no aptitude for it. "The kind of houses I designed weren't anything; they were just copies of somebody else's work I saw somewhere," he says.

Was Mr. Rothman worried about copying his father?

"Maybe I'd better lie down on the couch to answer that one," he laughs. "I had no doubt I wanted to be in civil engineering, to be able to build something I could climb on and kick and see from a distance."

Why bridges and not buildings? He says he did not want to "toady" to architects.

"With buildings, architects kind of consider engineers like handmaidens to do their bidding; in bridges, it's completely the engineer, and the architect is just somebody who hangs a bunch of marshmallows or grapes from what you design." (Sorry, dad. But thanks for the tips—in 1958, Mr. Rothman played architect and built his own house from scratch in Laurel Hollow, N.Y., where he was the unpaid deputy mayor and highway commissioner for 25 years.)

Mr. Rothman joined Ammann & Whitney in 1945 and was the firm's chief bridge engineer when he left in 1977. He has been at Weidlinger, where he is chairman, ever since. His idea of a challenge, now that he and his wife are "too old" to sail their 45-foot cutter around the world the way they once dreamed of doing, is to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge. Why? Why not? "I ought to get on a soapbox about it; it deteriorates as fast as we rebuild it."

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ROGERS '59 HONORED WITH CREATION OF ENDOWED CHAIR

The United States Naval Academy Foundation received a $2 million gift that will be used to endow a chair in the name of David F. Rogers '59. The endowment will fund a full professorship in aerospace engineering in honor of Rogers, who has been a professor of aeronautical engineering at the Naval Academy since 1964.

The gift was made by Kevin Sharer, president and CEO of Amgen, who is a 1970 USNA graduate and former student of Rogers'.

In announcing the gift, Sharer said, "Dr. Rogers changed my life. Passing his courses and earning his respect gave me my first real sense of intellectual accomplishment and made subsequent challenges seem manageable."

Rogers was one of the founding faculty members of the Aerospace Engineering Department at the Naval Academy in 1964. He wrote the original curriculum for the department, which, he says, he patterned after Rensselaer's. He is currently director of aeronautics, director of the Fluid Dynamics Laboratories, and head of the Supercomputer and Scientific Visualization Group at the Academy.

Rogers was founder and former director of the Computer Aided Design/Interactive Graphics Group at the Naval Academy. He is considered a computer graphics pioneer and recently appeared in the feature-length film The Story of Computer Graphics. He has written a number of books on computer graphics and aerodynamics including his latest computer graphics book, An Introduction to NURBS, With Historical Perspective.

At Rensselaer, Rogers earned bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in aeronautical engineering. Under the direction of Professor Henry Nagamatsu, he helped design and build the RPI Hypersonic Shock Tunnel, where he conducted experiments as part of his doctoral studies.

Rogers credited his experiences at Rensselaer for setting him on his rewarding career path. "The fine education and the commitment of RPI professors such as Joe Foa, Henry Nagamatsu, and Robert Duffy to teaching and research significantly contributed to my lifelong joy in these areas," said Rogers. "Thus, Kevin Sharer's gift to the Academy is in part due to RPI's commitment to excellence," he said.

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ARCHITECTURE FIRM REDEFINES FOCUS IN NAME CHANGE

Mallin Mendel & Associates Architects PC, founded by Rensselaer graduates in Albany, N.Y., announced its name change to ENVISION Architects PC in October 2000 and continued a longstanding tradition of employing Rensselaer graduates.

The firm's principals, Ted Mallin '73 and Sandra Baptie, welcomed a third principal, Michael Poost '74, of Brandt-Poost Architects. Noushin Ehsan, who taught at Rensselaer in the early '70s, joined the firm as design counsel, a position also held by former principal Benjamin Mendel Jr. '52 and Lawrence Linder. Kersten Lorcher '85 was promoted to associate to manage the Division of Construction Operations.

Other ENVISION staff who are Rensselaer alumni include F. Michael Hall '64, architect/construction manager; Daniel White '80, architect/planning & interiors; Jeffrey Mural '96, project architect; Jonathan Merin '00, intern architect; and Fe Rodriguez Marquez '99, project architect.

The firm's recent growth included the acquisition of Accessible Architects, PC in Manhattan. ENVISION's staff of 45 serves institutions from the health-care and education sectors, churches, and community organizations.

"The recent evolution of our firm has resulted in the broadening of talents and resources to a degree that it redefines who we are and how we practice," said Mallin. "Our new name, ENVISION, signifies the synergy of insight and imagination" and a focus on effective idea development and delivery, he said.

ENVISION's clients include Siena College, the Albany International Airport, the State University at Albany, St. Peter's Hospital, and Albany Medical Center, as well as several school districts.

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