Rutgers professor Angus Gillespie surmises that most New Jersey natives take the New Jersey Turnpike for granted. “[To them] it’s just part of the landscape,” Gillespie says.
But Gillespie looks and sees massive width, capacity, and economic importance. He calls the highway “an artifact that stimulates an artistic response.” It’s an everyman’s journey with a history of inspiring novels, songs, and poetry that attempt to capture life experience through landscape. Perhaps no piece of artistry, says Gillespie, does so as succinctly as Paul Simon’s 1960s song “America.” The song documents a couple’s cross country ride on a Greyhound bus. “Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America,” the lyrics sing.
Gillespie says his 1989 book, “Looking For America on the New Jersey Turnpike,” co-authored with former Princeton resident Michael Rockland, was born of an out-of-towner’s appreciation for the state’s most banally impressive piece of infrastructure. “I think that the fact that we were both working at Rutgers, which is just off Exit 9, sort of compelled us to take a fresh look.” To many, it may just be a strip of pavement. “But for us, it was an awesome road,” he says.
“Looking for America” is the second in a series of four books written by Gillespie that represent his “interest in heroic works of civil engineering and their cultural implications.” He will speak about his latest book, “Crossing Under the Hudson: The Story of The Holland and Lincoln Tunnels,” on Saturday, April 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Van Liw-Suydam House in Somerset.
Gillespie came up with the idea for “Crossing” while doing research for his 1999 New York Times best seller “Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center.” That was when he came across plans and documents tracking the history of tunnels, airports, bridges, and seaports and found himself sidetracked in the details of the history of projects too large and influential to ignore. He and Rockland decided that each would individually write a book based on the most interesting of his findings: one on the George Washington Bridge and a second on the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
Like Gillespie’s previous books, “Crossing Under the Hudson” notes many things that those accustomed to using or passing by the structure might take for granted. He notes, for example, that the Holland Tunnel is remarkable for being the first and most successful underwater vehicular tunnel. If not for the tunnel’s huge, breakthrough ventilation system, the concentration of exhaust-producing cars would have made the Holland Tunnel a giant gas chamber. Underneath the road sits a collection of powerful pumps used to force out water that constantly accumulates from leaks in the tunnel.
Those who read the book, says Gillespie, should walk away with an appreciation with all that went into the construction and maintenance of the tunnel and how it influenced anyone who has passed through or lived nearby. The book covers the mechanics and human motivations behind accidents, rush hour frustration, the role of police in maintaining order, the tunnels as an artistic muse, threats to life and property, and potential threat of terrorism, among a number of other everyday things taken for granted. And it also begs the question, what if the tunnel had never been built at all?
“One of the things they were worried about is if motorists would accept the psychological stress of being underneath the river,” Gillespie says of the decision makers behind the project. They found people would do so “with cheerful willingness.” And it was the success of the Holland Tunnel, the proof that such a project could be financed, operated, and maintained successfully, that led to the approval and construction of the Lincoln Tunnel.
The relationship between the Holland and Lincoln tunnels is one reason Gillespie believes the state of New Jersey’s decision not to fund a new Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel between New York and New Jersey in 2010 was short-sighted. “One way I like to think of it is as what if our grandfathers had felt that way about building the Holland Tunnel,” says Gillespie. “It was an expensive project at the time, but they had the confidence and the vision of the future to push ahead with it.”
Gillespie’s interest in the connection between architecture, localism, and culture come from life experience and academia. His father was a naval officer. His mother was a teacher. Gillespie spent his childhood hopping across state lines, from naval base to naval base, as duty called. “Wherever we went, my mother, who was a school teacher, would point out to the children, myself included, about the interesting surroundings that we encountered. So it wasn’t too surprising when I went to college, at Yale, that I majored in American studies.”
At Yale, a course in American architecture conducted by nationally recognized historian Vincent Scully trained Gillespie to look instinctually at any building he saw in terms of architectural style. Subsequently he attended a doctorate program in American civilization at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Alan Gowns coached him in architectural history. Both men, he says, provided a fundamental understanding of architecture and Americana. In graduate school he read a book called “Brooklyn Bridge: Fact & Symbol” by Alan Trachtenberg.
“I was very impressed with that as a young man in graduate school,” says Gillespie, “where you would take a heroic work of civil engineering and kind of tease it for its cultural implications.” “Fact & Symbol” places equal emphasis on the bridge’s structural components as well as the personalities and politics driving its construction. Trachtenberg introduces personal impressions of the bridge that manifested themselves through art; the poetry of Harold Hart Crane, the paintings of Joseph Stella, and photography of Walker Evans included.
Trachtenberg’s methods became the template for all of Gillespie’s future writings.
“You start with the Brooklyn Bridge, which is this very specific piece of architecture,” Gillespie says. “It links lower Manhattan with Brooklyn. But in the hands of Alan Trachtenberg, he shows how this is a manifestation of Tammany Hall and the Gilded Age and the Victorian era. Yes, we start with something local and something specific. But then we try to look at its implications for the larger picture.”
The bigger picture is where Gillespie found the inspiration behind his best seller on the Twin Towers. In the 1970s most architectural critics and historians considered the Twin Towers to be dull and undeserving of notice. Most architectural history books Gillespie read did not even mention the Towers or the World Trade Center. Yet he found the typical guide book would list both under the top 10 attractions in New York City. Often one of two structures would be listed as number one.
“Sometimes there was advice to visitors overseas saying if you only have one day to spend in New York City, what you must do — the absolute must — is to go to the observation deck of the Twin Towers,” says Gillespie. He saw a gap large enough to fill a book. “It seemed that, since architectural critics and architectural historians had not dealt with the building, there was a real opportunity for me to do so.”
Wherever Gillespie finds himself, he makes a habit of noting and exploring the largest man-made structure nearby, often underappreciated and hidden in plain sight.
Going south on the New Jersey Turnpike, says Gillespie, an alert passenger might see, off to the right, “The Cruiser in the Cornfield,” a U.S. Navy research facility structured like a battle ship. Just north of Exit 9 is a huge water tower sitting on top of a hill. It’s the terminal moraine, the exact point where, during the ice age, the expanding polar ice cap stopped pushing rocks and land through North America.
He considers the triple overpass near Woodbridge — where the Garden State Parkway and Route 9 both pass over I-95 — an architectural marvel. “But again, not too many people bother to look up,” says Gillespie. “But there it is.”
The April 6 presentation is a homecoming of sorts for Gillespie. He spent 10 years living in the East Millstone section of Franklin Township, a historic neighborhood dominated by 19th-century I-house style architecture — named for houses commonly found in several states that begin with the letter “I.”
Al Levine, who invited Gillespie to speak at the event, is a partner in the accounting firm that employs Gillespie’s wife. Levine has also served as her mentor over the years.
Today, Gillespie lives in East Brunswick, where he hosts Old Ways in New Jersey, a monthly program on the town’s public access television station. The show gives him a chance to highlight people who “embody the old ways and traditions of New Jersey,” as he puts it.
Gillespie’s local perspective spans wide. Aside from writing books, Gillespie has served on the Millstone Valley volunteer fire department, as a New Brunswick Ward Two committeeman and New Brunswick board of education member, and on the board of trustees for East Brunswick Public library. He has taught American studies, folklore, and public policy and planning at Rutgers, and is the founder of the New Jersey Folk Festival, the annual gathering of arts and culture that attracts around 15,000 people.
To say Gillespie is well suited to provide comprehensive insight into the local region through its people is, therefore, quite an understatement.
Angus Gillespie discusses “Crossing Under the Hudson: The Story of The Holland and Lincoln Tunnels,” Van Liw-Suydam House, 280 South Middlebush Road, Somerset. Saturday, April 6, 2 to 4 p.m. $5 to -$7. RSVP required by E-mail to FranklinCAC@gmail.com. 609-577-3847.