Commentary: The Merritt Parkway is a national treasure

Photo of Duo Dickinson

We forget the meanings of things we see and use everyday. The Merritt Parkway is a national treasure that has never ceased to evolve, and that evolution has had its share of irony.

Governor Wilbur Cross announced the creation of the Merritt Parkway in 1934. The road was intended to take traffic off of hugely congested Route 1, and the proposed divided highway roamed through “The Gold Coast” of Connecticut, to Stratford, to the Housatonic River where the Wilbur Cross Parkway now begins. Named after then U.S. Rep. Congressman Schuyler Merritt, the 37 mile road was initially finished in 1940, extending the Hutchinson River Parkway, and then later further extended by the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Rumors fly about that the 69 concrete bridges were designed by Yale students, but in truth, George L. Dunkelberger was the architect, much of which was paid for by the New Deal’s WPA (“Works Progress Administration”) and PWA (“Public Works Administration”) at a time when the Federal Highway System was not even envisioned — and World War II was yet to force America into being a world power.

Like other WPA projects, the goal was to sop up the Depression Era unemployed, but all American roads were almost always locally designed and funded (tolls were installed in 1940) and the notion of “park” was as important to the proposal as any sense of increased mass transit. After all, the Merritt went through largely failed farmland, way north of even the nascent suburban extension of New York City, and including 22,000 trees and 40,000 plantings.

The Merritt, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, and was declared by the state of Connecticut to be a “State Scenic Highway” and by the national government to be a “National Scenic Byway” courses through some of the most expensive residential real estate in the country, including towns like Greenwich. The road has also been declared to be “endangered” by some as new roads like Route 8 and Interstate 91, which now dump ever increasing waves of traffic onto its four lanes. One element of the connection to Route 8 that had to be remade was rendered into a place called “No Man’s Land” as the “park” disappeared in favor of the “highway.”

The road’s tolls are 30 years gone (but may return), and we are seeing the endgame of a decade’s worth of renovation. The rethinking of the Merritt had begun in 1992, with the Department of Transportation introducing a program for improvement in 1994. After the good work of private consultants such as landscape architect Shavaun Towers and architect Herb Newman, the “shovel ready” status of the Merritt’s rejuvenation made it a prime candidate for federal “stimulus” spending. In February of 2009, President Barack Obama’s “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” allowed for an initial award of $36 million to improve on and off ramps, install sinuous Cor-Ten Steel and wood guide rails, and gentle concrete curbing, which combine with new trees and signage, per drawings of Milone and MacBroom site engineers and landscape architects. One month after Obama took office in 2009, $126,000 worth of signs proclaimed that the final tally of $69 million worth of “stimulus” was real and immediate.

But like the original push to build the Merritt, this road serves people, not industry (commercial vehicles are illegal) and the road is fully set in the lap of “The 1 percent.” To me, the aesthetic benefits are undeniable, but the broad social intentions are less evident. Much was done in the last decade, including removal of a separating earth berm installed a generation before, and dozens of bridges being repaired. The remaining old galvanized steel guardrails are being removed, and the new curbing being installed, bit by bit — perhaps promising some form of completion — before new tolls perhaps reemerge.

Since the “stimulus” funded effort, there was a privately financed recreation of the rest stops, including solar-paneled gas pumps. The devastating hurricanes of the past decade made federally funded “resilience” trimming and culling of some of those 1938 trees changed the face of the highway though still more verdant than when it originally opened. But in truth, the slower, more curvy, beautifully bridged road stands in contrast to the radically reforming Eisenhower Interstate Highway system built 20 years later.

It could be said the haste makes waste, and the incredible speed and effectiveness of the Eisenhower Federal Highway System often ripped through towns and divided established communities. The dramatic creation of the Connecticut Turnpike (Interstate 95) not only separated towns from Long Island Sound, but the subsequent I-91 facilitated huge public migration from city centers to the fallow farmland and created huge new suburban sprawl north of New Haven.

These huge ribbons of concrete and steel gutted city centers, bulldozed neighborhoods, deflated downtowns of residents, businesses, and churches, and devalued areas of urban property that ultimately encouraged blight to become part of New England’s list of concerns.

Abandoned farms now had a new crop: suburbia. One-quarter acre lots sprouted facsimiles of Colonial forms, Capes and center halls in mass infection of a cul-de-sac landscape not only in Connecticut but in New England.

Like the poisoning pollution that wrecked any number of local ecosystems during the Industrial Revolution of the last century, the destructive impact of highways was unintended, but pervasive. Certain local connections to the incidental off-ramp became prosperous gas bars for thirsty cars. However, the spine of New England, U.S. Route 1, was rendered into the ultimate off-ramp, spawning Big Box stores that killed the local merchant.

So while waves of renovation have renewed and restored the Merritt’s “park” presence, the blitz of road building of I-95, I-91 and I-84 in the ‘60s through 80s transformed Connecticut in ways no one could have predicted.

Factories fled all during the building of these highways, as have many of the children of the Baby Boomers that remained, on that well-worn path of egress of institutions of commerce like General Electric. What are left are legacy institutions of property taxes and Real Estate firms hawking the homes that popped up apace with all those highways.

Amid all these ebbs and flows sits the Merritt. Flowing as it has for the last 80 years, what was a radical departure from agrarian and shop life before World War II this parkway has become a constant stream of bucolic energy and artistic preservation that has served federal economic needs.

The essence of New England itself can be said to be manifest in the abiding places like the Merritt as we engage in the inevitable radical reinvention we have always experienced. There is no better reality of the distilled beauty of history than the Merritt’s 37 miles.

Editor’s note: A change this post was made to correct the reference to the Housatonic River. It originally erroneously said Hammonasset River.

Duo Dickinson, FAIA, graduated from Cornell, is an architect of over 800 things and has written 8 books. He writes for Common Edge and Mockingbird and teaches at the Building Beauty Program in Sorrento, Italy and will be an adjunct instructor at The University of Hartford next spring.