Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bridge House

By the turn of the century before last, Cornell had finished building its main quadrangle on what used to be Ezra Cornell's high pasture between two gorges, but the campus was still separated by Fall Creek Gorge, from the undeveloped heights on the North. The side-gorges and steep glens made construction projects a special problem in the Heights, but Cornell wanted to reach across and put some women's dorms over there.
So the University held a design competition for a bridge to the Heights.

Oliver Fast, a post graduate student at the time, submitted a design for a full -span, stone arch, supporting not just the road-way, but also two stories of class rooms and prominent observation posts . Stone stairs wound down through the abutments to more rooms and chambers. Despite seeming archaic, the bridge would have been a feat of modern engineering, using Fast's own twist on the new iron-assisted, fero-cement, construction techniques, which the Ithaca architect Clinton Vivian and others were pioneering at the time.

The Fast proposal was just too new, too old, too crazy..... and to nobody's surprise, the competition was won by the steel bridge you see there today: radical then, but an antique now. They don't build steel erector-set bridges like that any more. And simply maintaining them has become a branch of historic preservation.
The barbed cable , tension core construction, which Fast invented never did catch on anywhere, and the next bridge across that gorge will likely be a spider-tech nano-fiber sequestered-carbon based, double-reflex, tension/ suspension system, which will itself weigh less than a city bus, and will be quickly reeled in for redeployment elsewhere.

But on the same day back when the design competition winner was announced , Oliver Fast wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, declaring in unprintable language, at unreadable length, and with no chance of having it published, that he would blankety blank go somewhere and build the blankety blank thing himself. for himself, and if necessary, by him blankety blank self.

Oliver Fast never went far, but this was at a time when professors were so poorly paid that they had to be rich already to take on a Professorship. so the exposure got him commissions to design mansions in the Heights. Each of the best Heights estates had its own dwarf-glen, or was a winding eminence between two border gorges.
Portuguese and Italian stone masons left over from the Cornell blue stone boom easily shifted to laying up houses like follies in Jane Austin Country gardens... or like mausoleums in her cemetery.
Homes with hundred yard, pounded cobblestone driveways and stone gate- posts the size of smoke-houses.
And then came the junior-faculty houses, closer to the curb , like ornamentally disguised gate-keeper cottages.

Fraternity houses became his particular speciality . Many Fraternity Trustees payed to go with some kind of fantasy historical theme, often Gothic or Medieval, with secret chapter rooms, and winding stone stairs connecting levels. Fast was good with that. The fraternity work made him rich.
Fast isn't known to have had family, or even any romantic affairs, or any social interactions outside of chess games, but his success allowed him to buy his own land in the Heights.
A deep, dwarf gorge cut through the middle of it.

Fast never drew any real plans for his Bridge House. And there was never even a point where we could say he first started.
Before he could think of beginning, he had to make extensive pick-and-shovel explorations into the structural stability of the abutment areas.
And then he kind of had to install the footings and cassons, so that the exposed shale didn't crack and collapse.
Cayuga Heights , Forest Home, and County Court record show that , although he never did get a building permit, the village boards were not able to stop Mr. Oliver Fast from continuing what he argued was essentially only maintenance of and improvements to natural stability
Just the temporary timber frame support for the abutment and the arch must have taken more than one season to construct..... and after that, things only went slower. The unique barbed-iron cable which he installed under tension in canvas tubes for the cement cores he had poured through the stone work, must have frustrated and slowed the traditional mason a lot.
Up the years, as the structure rose to a second story of rooms above the arch, the few stone masons who hadn't moved on or gone back to the old country, died off or became too old to climb. He kept his last old stone man around strictly as a chess partner, until that one got to be too old to stay awake at the board.

Fast finished hoisting and installing the thumb-thick, tray-sized, roof slates all by himself, one dark day a week before the fiftieth Christmas of his life.
He climbed down from the roof the last time that day and walked into the main foyer of Bridge House....into an empty chamber.... on what he must have suddenly realized, was a bridge to nothing....and him with nothing but nothing to do ever again.

Because, within a month of hanging the last roof tile, Oliver Fast attempted suicide by jumping off his bridge. But the scale was too small to kill him. He was lucky that it was early winter with two feet of snow and oak leaves drifted into the gorge. And lucky to have worked so long as his own earth-mover and stone mason, because, although his legs were paralyzed for ever, he was able to haul himself up out of the gorge .

After six months in a sanatorium , Fast still had enough money that he could return to Bridge House, supervise some remodeling, and then spend the rest of his life ( and the money) being cared for by a live-in Scottish nursemaid/ cook/ house keeper, and her husband the butler/gardener/ nurse's aid He had allowed them to bring their little rat terrier at their insistence that it was a working dog. There had in fact been a rat problem, but the dog spent most of it's life after that in Fast's Lap, which was fine with the dog and the man.. The Mrs. was a great cook, and . McRobbie himself was a chess player, and a busy amateur wood carver.
That is all,according to the day maid, who lived down in town and walked up to Bridge House each day. She testified that the two men sat around in front of the fireplace for as many hours carving chess pieces and arguing about books , as they did playing chess. Arguing and waving their carving knives, the men never went for each other's throats. Fast gave the maid and the milk man big tips at Christmass, and Mrs. McRobbie gave them scones and macaroons throughout the year.

In short....they were jolly happy for most of a a dogs age.
Then, following a particularly jolly Christmass dinner attended by the milk man and the day maid ( who were later married ) , Fast died of sudden heart failure .

He left everything to his dear McRobbies, with left overs for the maid and the milk man, although at that point, the real estate was most everything, and it's legal status was in question.

For reasons never made clear, the McRobbies disappeared a few weeks after Fast died. And they never did reappear to claim the questionable estate .

Some things will always be a mystery, and that is just fine, because we have to move on with history, and the point is: here for a time was a happy family. And, whatever you may have heard, happy families are not all the same.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Reed, Ph.D. said...

Nice piece, William. We've missed you.