Volume 22, Number 36 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 15 - 21, 2010
Workers examine the bulkhead that was recently found during construction of W. Thames Park in Battery Park City, which opened in the 1980s. Photo left courtesy of the New York State Museum; photo right by Julie Shapiro
Historical find in Downtowns newest neighborhood
By Julie Shapiro
Construction workers tunneling into Battery Park City landfill recently found something much older than the neighborhood itself: The concrete bulkhead put in place over 100 years ago.
Running along the Hudson River from Battery Place to W. 59th St., the massive bulkhead is made of wooden pilings, topped with concrete, topped with granite blocks. In the beginning of November, workers installing a drainage system in the new W. Thames Park along the West Side Highway hit a piece of concrete that they quickly recognized as the historic bulkhead.
We realized we had to stop, said Lisa Weiss, urban design director for the State Dept. of Transportation.
Weiss then called in the expert: Joe Sopko, who specializes in historic archeology at the New York State Museum. Based on a plan Sopko drafted in 2006, when he first realized the park and other Route 9A work could run into the bulkhead, he visited the site to survey what the workers had uncovered.
At first, Sopko was surprised by what he saw, because the wall was just concrete and looked nothing like the granite blocks that can be seen peeking out above the waves along the shoreline farther north. All the granite blocks between the Battery and Chambers St. were removed to build Battery Park City with landfill, Sopko said.
Once Sopko had thoroughly documented the bulkhead, he gave permission on Nov. 5 for the states workers to remove a section of it about 8 to 10 feet long, 20 feet wide and 15 feet high to make way for the drainage system. Sopko did not insist on saving the concrete Its just concrete, he said.
But then Sopko added, with growing enthusiasm, that the bulkhead is one of the first examples of a large amount of concrete used in a construction project. Technological advances in the late 1800s allowed for concrete strengthened with iron that could hold up underwater, Sopko said. That new concrete was also used to build the Brooklyn Bridge.
Civil War Gen. George McClellan launched the bulkhead project in 1870 because silt and refuse was building up along the Hudson River shoreline and the rotting piers, preventing ships from landing. McClellan was then the chief engineer at the citys Dept. of Docks, though the project was not done until 1936. The section that the state just uncovered was built before the turn of the century but was replaced in 1901, Sopko said.
The bulkhead is on the state Register of Historic Places.
It was very significant for the Port of New York, Sopko said.
This was the first time State D.O.T. has bumped into the bulkhead during the Route 9A project, but the Port Authority hit a different portion of it in 2008 while building an underground passage between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center. Like the section that was recently uncovered in W. Thames Park, historians examined the wall and then it was removed.
While surprise historical discoveries have been known to delay projects for months or years, the bulkhead in W. Thames Park set the construction back only two weeks.
That would be the fastest Ive ever heard of any historical issue like that being resolved, said Bill Love, a member of Community Board 1s B.P.C. Committee, upon hearing about the bulkhead at a meeting last week.
D.O.T. plans to make up the lost two weeks by doing some round-the-clock work in March or April, to meet the projects Memorial Day deadline. Mukesh Desai, D.O.T.s construction management director, promised that the work would be quiet, including the placement of pre-cut stones.
Benjamin Keller, who lives in Battery Park City next to W. Thames Park, said trucks high-pitched beeping in the park already wakes him at 7 a.m. and he wants to hear less early morning work, not more. Most of the projects vehicles were supposed to use quieter backup alarms, and D.O.T. said they would make sure that was the case.
In addition to the bulkhead discovery, the project has faced several other delays. It was late in getting started because of last-minute objections from the community about the demolition of the old Tire Swing Park and the removal of some trees. Since then, D.O.T. has been held up while waiting for Con Edison to deliver materials and while waiting for the city to approve a temporary shift in the bike path. The dog run refurbishment is also running behind schedule because of a construction conflict and the cold weather.
Were optimistic we can make up the time, said Joseph Brown, the project director, since the excavation, which is the trickiest part, is over. Were past the point where were relying on others, he added. Most of the surprises
should be out of the way.
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