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66 years later, Connecticut's Merritt Parkway still offers drivers miles of beauty and stress relief

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathy Shorr
Globe correspondent / December 26, 2004

Even as a little boy, Herbert Newman knew there was something special about the Merritt Parkway.

''In the late '30s, my mother and father used to drive down to New York with squabbling brothers in the back seat," recalls Newman, a New Haven-based architect and architecture critic who taught at Yale for four decades. ''When we came to the Merritt, we were distracted from our battles. Here we were on a beautifully landscaped roadway, at that time with marvelous open views. The roadbed was like a ribbon, stretched across the landscape. It was almost like you were on a magic carpet."

For the uninitiated, the Merritt is a 37-mile stretch of road in Connecticut that roughly parallels Interstate 95 between Milford and Greenwich, just short of the New York border. It was the first divided-lane, limited-access highway in Connecticut, built during the Depression and opened in 1938.

A few things have changed over the decades. Sixty years ago, 18,000 cars used the road each day; now 70,000 do. Vegetation has grown up so that some sections now resemble a green tunnel more than the wide panorama of Newman's youth.

Yet, as anyone knows who has breathed a sigh of relief leaving Interstate 95 south for the Merritt, there is still something wonderful about the parkway.

Part of the pleasure is not in what is there, but in what is not there.

''Any time, day or night, it's better to be on the Merritt than on 95," says Laurie Heiss, executive director of the nonprofit Merritt Parkway Conservancy, which is dedicated to improving and celebrating the parkway.

''It's a fun road to drive, the fact that there aren't lights or road signs, advertising in your face, or trucks. Peaceful is not a word we use any longer in transportation, especially in Connecticut. But that said, it's a pretty relaxing drive. You can enjoy the scenery."

Enjoying the scenery was one of the original intentions behind the road. Even in the 1920s and '30s, Connecticut already was feeling the effects of too many cars. The old Boston Post Road, which connected Boston and New York, was congested, full of trucks, billboards, and curb cuts for roadside attractions.

The Merritt was designed to provide an alternate route, as well as to give jobs to local workers and stimulate economic development in Fairfield County during the Depression.

From its inception, however, the Merritt was meant not only as an alternate route, but also as an alternate experience as well, according to architecture historian Bruce Radde. His book, ''The Merritt Parkway" (Yale University Press, 1993), traces the history of the construction and design of what has been called the largest Art Deco design in the world.

''There were other highways built about the same time, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but they were totally different," says Radde. The Turnpike ''was built on the right of way of the unused railroad, straight as an arrow, whereas the Merritt was intended as a drive in the park. So it was artfully adjusted to the landscape, to the rise and fall of the land. It meanders through the geography of Fairfield County, adjusting to rock outcroppings, valleys, and hills."

While new neighborhoods grew up along the parkway (economic development did come to pass), the parkway has kept its rural look, thanks in part to a 150-foot-wide green buffer along the road, planted with mostly native species. The original landscape architect, Weld Thayer Chase, designed the road so it would look as if it had magically appeared in the countryside.

''They built temporary nurseries," says Radde, ''dug up whole trees and native plant materials to move them, and replanted them to create something that looked as if it had always been there, make it look as if nature had never been disturbed in making this."

The other great pleasure of the Merritt is its handsome concrete bridges, done in various architectural styles popular in the 1930s, including Art Deco, Art Moderne, French Renaissance, Gothic, Rustic, and Neoclassical. All 69 of the original bridges spanning the Merritt were designed by one person, George Dunkelberger, who took a job with the highway department after his architecture firm went bankrupt in the Depression.

No two bridges are alike. Radde says Dunkelberger kept the nature of each site in mind in designing the bridges.

''If it was a flat area, he used a horizontal design in the bridge," Radde says. ''If it was hilly, he used a vertically oriented motif in the buttresses and railings. These are very subtle things that most people wouldn't notice."

One of Dunkelberger's biggest challenges was material; to save money, he had to use concrete instead of stone. At the time nobody thought you could do much with concrete, certainly not anything beautiful. But Dunkelberger proved them wrong. He and his team carved, sculpted, and tinted the concrete into myriad designs. The Comstock Hill Road Bridge has a bas relief Pilgrim and Indian on its pylons. On the Merwins Lane Bridge, there are cast iron railings with a spider and its web in the middle and butterflies on either end. The Burr Street Bridge has bas reliefs of the surveyors and construction workers who built the parkway.

These and other features are highlighted in a new drivers guide to the parkway published last spring -- the first in 50 years -- by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. The compact foldout includes the parkway's history on one side. The other shows not only the parkway, but also some of the nature centers, town centers, and spots that make for good travelers' stops along the way.

One of the conservancy's big projects is on show this month as well. For the first time, two of the bridges have been lit. One is the Newtown Turnpike Bridge in Westport, between exits 40 and 41, with separate tunnels for each direction of traffic. The other, the Ponus Ridge Road bridge in New Canaan, between exits 35 and 36, has lines etched in the concrete to resemble stone, and features a concrete cast of the Connecticut coat of arms.

''We think of the Merritt as a bridge museum," says Heiss. ''We're taking two out of the collection and highlighting them. It's also lighting the way for drivers during the holiday season." The bridges will stay lighted until early next month.

Newman, who is also a board member of the conservancy, says the demonstration has a practical side as well.

''The Merritt Parkway has no lights," he says. ''So many drivers on it are aging, and driving at night becomes more difficult. The [bridge] abutments are close to the roadbed, you have no idea you're coming to them, so the idea of lighting appealed to me as a safety issue."

While most people may think of roads as just a way to get between two places, a lifetime of driving the Merritt and studying architecture has given Newman respect for this road as something different.

''The wonder of the Merritt was that it was conceived as a place to experience the state, not just to get from here to there," he says. ''To my mind, it's Connecticut's longest, perhaps most wonderful, work of architecture. The joy of that experience compared to other motoring experiences has always stood out. That's what great works of art do: They renew you and get you in touch with your humanity. The Merritt does that. It's a great work of art, I think."

Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer living in Wellfleet. She can be reached at kshorr@mail2.gis.net

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