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
"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 doctorhis 1944 degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute was in civil engineeringnever 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
"It takes a genuine wind to bring down
a bridgeexcept 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
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 damperin 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
"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 tipsin 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."