Art of the Road

One of the joys of Connecticut is its natural beauty.  I first fell in love with what seemed like a gracious place, when driving years ago on the Merritt Parkway.  Well, tonight, I got some insight into how the magic of that road came into being, viewing a documentary called “The Road Taken…The Merritt Parkway.”

Like so much else, politics were important in the conception of the road in the 1920s, but so were values.  Schuyler Merritt was a Congressman who wanted to create beauty in a road connecting New York City and Connecticut.  The idea was to create a park, a very long park, with a way through it–a park-way.

Cars were not as common as now, of course, with only the wealthy driving.  They didn’t want a parkway going through their estates, so the road was designed, winding not to follow the natural landscape, but to skirt the large estates.

Still, creating a road of and for beauty was inspired.  Merritt and others with this vision were followers of The City Beautiful aesthetic, emerging from the 1890s and 1900s.  Architects, sculptors, and city planners worked in conjunction to make cities better places to live.  With beauty as a major goal, this road was designed for a time when cars “purred,” according to Merritt, and the drive was a leisure-time activity for the whole family.  The results were meant to be “exhilarating”!

An architect was hired, not an engineer.  Each bridge spanning the Parkway is different, ranging in styles from Art Deco to medieval to natural.











Poetry and lyricism were added.  A metal worker spun his magic…

…as did stone masons…

…and carvers

Construction was mostly done during the 1930s, as a public works project that put many unemployed men to work.  Here a bridge carving honors their efforts.

What also makes the Merritt special is the way it harmonizes human-made with nature.  A landscape architect was hired to ensure that.  He planted trees in clumps, the way they grow in nature.  Larger trees were planted well away from bridges to create a kind of entrance to the bridge as a focal point.  Like Connecticut, the Parkway has four-season beauty.

Apparently, John Lennon would rent a car in New York City and take a drive on the Merritt to clear his head and find peace, before returning to the city, refreshed and with new ideas.

My favorite story comes from the transition period just when tolls were no longer collected, and the toll houses were removed.  One man reminisces how he loved the signs that read, “Toll House 1 mile ahead.”

He approached the Department of Transportation about handing out Toll House cookies on the day tolls were no longer collected.  They said , “no.”  Insurance, liability, blah, blah.

“No” didn’t stop this man.  He had two women bake 750 cookies, and he placed them in wax paper bags.  On the day the tolls were no longer collected, 750 drivers passed by a sign that read “Toll House Cookies 1 mile ahead,” then passed through the booth for the last time with a smile on their faces, cookie in hand.  Try that on I95!

Try any of this on I95, add a little beauty to the mundane, and what a better world we would live in.



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