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“Ribbon of Steel and Concrete”: A Cultural Biography of the Buffalo Skyway (1955) | Part 3 of 4

Author: William Graebner | See Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

A half century after motorists first experienced the pleasures of Buffalo’s high-level bridge, it is still a thrill to ascend the Skyway, still a thrill to round the big curve with the lake filling the windshield, still a thrill to see the city in lights on the northbound run; still a thrill to see the Skyway at night from City Hall, “ablaze with light,” as a Courier-Express photographer’s time exposure, taken the evening of the opening, had revealed.40 “The skyway,” wrote a man who today commutes over the Skyway, “is one of my favorite stretches of highway anywhere in the US. Since I was a small boy riding with my dad, a stint as a ten-wheel dump truck driver, and now a commuter, a drive on the Skyway has and still thrills me.”41 But the pleasures of the Skyway were also historical pleasures, the pleasures of 1955, pleasures heightened and made important by a generation of Americans who loved their cars and loved their roads, for whom the automobile was emerging as a symbol of speed, flight, power, mobility, progress, and sheer bigness—all miraculously captured and represented in that ribbon of steel and concrete over the Buffalo harbor.

Generations of scholars, working in an exceptionalist vein, have identified migration, movement, and mobility as key ingredients of the American experience. Writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, when “American character” studies were in vogue, historian George W. Pierson labeled that trilogy the “M-Factor,” which for Pierson encompassed the nation’s frontier heritage, its experience with immigration, its ideology of social mobility, and, in the twentieth century, its passion for the automobile. “Driving has become the country’s favorite outdoor recreation,” he wrote. “Movement means life. To the American it is not ‘I think therefore I am,’ but ‘I move, so I’m alive.’” Examining prose narratives about roads and cars, Ronald Primeau argues that for Americans the highway has been “sacred space” where one might experience “exhilarating motion, speed and solitude.” In Freedom as Motion (2001), Leslie Dale Feldman locates the link between freedom and motion in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651); for Hobbes, freedom was movement, which he defined as the absence of “impediments to motion,” a definition that marks the Skyway’s role in eliminating traffic “congestion” as productive of freedom of motion—that is, of liberal freedom itself. “The car,” Feldman concludes, “is an encapsulation of Hobbesian psychology.”42

The advertisements of the day provide a local window on the historical moment of the 1950s that built and embraced the Skyway.

The advertisements of the day provide a local window on the historical moment of the 1950s that built and embraced the Skyway. In an age when young boys were enthralled with the F-86 Sabre jets that had filled the skies over Korea, Detroit embellished its automobile ads with jet planes and wings, helping their customers to identify the grounded automobile with images of flight.43 Dodge identified its 1955 Royal Lancer with driving adventure, and adventure with flight: “the sweep of the rear deck, the rakish slant of the full wrap-around New Horizon windshield that encircles you in a glass cockpit.”44 The tailfins that now seem so outrageously overdone were just beginning to emerge, with the 1956 Chrysler featuring its “Forward Look”—“one clean sweep from headlights to upswept tail”—and Dodge claiming its share of a seemingly limitless, visionary future with gear shift buttons it billed as “the magic touch of tomorrow.”45 The name “Skyway,” chosen from over 3,800 entries in a contest run by one of Buffalo’s daily newspapers, directly linked the automobile to flight and signified the optimism of the age.46

The Skyway represented what Americans wanted from their cars, and—ironically, given the structure’s prosaic origins—what they wanted was more than safety and convenience. The word “go,” a regular feature of auto ads in the 1950s, was at the center of this desire. The “Forward Look,” read copy for Chrysler, “wraps up the whole idea of GO!”; Pontiac’s Catalina was “the greatest ‘go’ on wheels!” But no one understood or said it better than Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road, written in 1951, finally reached print in 1957. Kerouac’s protagonist was Dean Moriarty, a talented maniac of a driver who would have taken the Skyway as he did every other road—as fast as possible—and understood it as an appropriate measure of his substantial abilities. “‘Whooee!’ Yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!”47 Built for commuters, the Skyway appealed to those like Moriarty, who wanted to move. Built by the establishment, the Skyway also could be used in acts of resistance, by those engaged in what W. T. Lhamon Jr. has described as a culture of “deliberate speed,” seeking to overcome postwar “anomie” and “impotence.”48

Everything had to be big, and not just cars.

Everything had to be big, and not just cars. “For 1956,” announced one advertisement, “the big move is to THE BIG MERCURY,” and another Mercury ad described a vehicle that “Looks BIG—FEELS BIG—ACTS BIG—IS BIG!” The pitch applied even to last year’s leftovers, with the 1955 Pontiac sold with “No Car SO BIG/At a Price SO LOW.”49 During the same week that the Skyway opened, area residents had their choice of movies about big men. The Last Command starred Sterling Hayden as Jim Bowie, whose size was assumed to have prepared him for his Alamo heroics: “What a Man was Six-Foot-Six Jim Bowie! A towering motion picture adventure!” At Buffalo’s Century Theater, Clark Gable and Robert Ryan appeared in The Tall Men, which seemed to have no other subject than being tall: “The Tall Men Stood Tall . . . Fought Tall . . . Loved Tall . . . And One Man Towered Above Them All!” 50 Before the year was out Buffalo audiences would experience the cinematic equivalent of a first ride over the Skyway, the rollercoaster of the concentrated essence of “big” cinema: Cinerama.51

In that moment, the Skyway was a structure of beauty and power.

In that moment, the Skyway was a structure of beauty and power. It was not then the “ugly dinosaur that mars our waterfront,” not a “glaring eyesore,” not “one of those things that nobody particularly likes”—all judgments that would appear in print after the turn of the next century, rhetorical preparations for the act of demolition, as if to acknowledge the structure’s aesthetic qualities would jeopardize the effort to get rid of it. The Skyway was the product of engineer Edward P. Lupfer, whose firm was located in the elegant, beaux arts Ellicott Square Building, and whose modest Buffalo home offered views of three of Frederick Law Olmsted’s intersecting parkways. Lupfer’s work reflected his training in the humanities at the University of Kansas and a trip to Italy, where he had studied the arches of ancient Rome. Lupfer’s earlier efforts included the Peace Bridge (1927), whose five arches were derived from classical Greece and Rome, and the nearby Rainbow Bridge, in 1941 named by the American Institute of Steel Construction as the “most beautiful bridge built that year.” Lupfer insisted that he had been most concerned with what he described as the “spiritual side” of the Peace Bridge, his most famous work. “It has meant more than a sheer technique to me or more than a mere transport for vehicles; it has meant a structure that would weave two nations in close and finer friendship than before existed. . . .” He made no such claim for the Skyway—at least none that I have found—but his interest in the humanities remained undiminished. Just a year before the Skyway opened to traffic, Lupfer lamented the design and aesthetic shortcomings of many of his fellow engineers. “Not in the techniques and sciences,” he insisted. “The average engineer is supremely capable there. It is in the humanities—literature, philosophy, the classics,—it is there he is not sufficiently versed. All of these would be most helpful to him in dealing with his many publics in diplomatic and public affairs.”52 It was an age when engineers did the work of designers, and Lupfer did both well.53

The Skyway was designed and constructed at a time when most bridges were understood to be primarily load-carrying, traffic-moving structures, rather than works of art, examples of fine architecture, or public symbols.

The Skyway was designed and constructed at a time when most bridges were understood to be primarily load-carrying, traffic-moving structures, rather than works of art, examples of fine architecture, or public symbols. Developments in bridge-building material had something to do with that utilitarian attitude; between 1889 and 1950, reinforced concrete—the material used in the Skyway—gradually replaced iron and steel as the material of choice. Even so, reinforced concrete was compatible with aesthetic ambitions. The plain, even stark facades of early twentieth-century factories made of reinforced concrete were conscious products of a modern, functionalist aesthetic; these buildings were understood to be pleasing and even beautiful as well as sensible and efficient.54

Although some dramatic effects could be achieved in concrete—particularly the pre-stressed variety, introduced in 1930 and first used in a Philadelphia span in 1950—most concrete bridges, including the Buffalo Skyway, were seen as engineering structures that did not require the services of an architect—or, put somewhat differently, structures for which the engineer was responsible for aesthetics as well as functionality.55 Nonetheless, there was growing attention to the problem of how artistry might be brought to the concrete bridge, and to what might constitute a handsome bridge as opposed to one that was merely functional. Contributing to this new awareness was a burgeoning, utopian movement in commercial and industrial design, launched in the 1920s and inspired by the enthusiasm for trains and airplanes. During the 1930s, industrial design ideas spilled over from consumer products to affect urban planning, highways, and structures of all kinds, from world fairs to elevated highways. Public response to the construction and opening of San Francisco’s remarkable Golden Gate Bridge (1933–37) also encouraged engineers to consider aesthetics as an essential element of bridge design, regardless of the material.56 Consistent with this design history, Buffalo historian Mark Goldman has described the Skyway as a “high, arching ‘City of Tomorrow’–like elevated highway right out of the 1939 World’s Fair.”57

Lead image: Figure 6: The renovated Skyway opens, 1976. Buffalo Courier Express Library Collection, Courtesy, E. H. Butler Library Archives, Buffalo State College.

This article was originally published in the journal American Studies in 2007 | American Studies, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 77-100 (Article) | Published by Mid-American Studies Association | DOI: 10.1353/ams.0.0051

For additional information about this article.


40. Courier-Express, October 20, 1955, 1 (Clifford Preisigke photo).

41. Mitch Cummings, email to author, February 3, 2003.

42. George W. Pierson, The Moving American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973) [an edited collection], 234 (“M-Factor”), 13 (“outdoor recreation”), 83 (“movement means life”); Ronald Primeau, Romance of the Road: The Literature of the American Highway (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996), 1; Leslie Dale Feldman, Freedom as Motion (New York: University Press of America, 2001), xiii (“impediments”), 60 (“Hobbesian psychology”). See also Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951), 37, and James J. Flink, “Three Stages of Automobile Consciousness,” American Quarterly 24 (October 1972): 455 and passim. Pierson’s formulation of the “M-Factor” was first published in “The M-Factor in American History,” American Quarterly 14 (Summer 1962): 275-289. Hine describes the Populuxe era as valuing “forward motion at ever-increasing speed” (Populuxe, 6-7). True to form, the cantankerous Mumford found the same phenomenon—labeled the “religion of the motorcar”—deserving of condemnation. “The American,” he wrote in 1958, “has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar, like someone who, demented with passion, wrecks his home in order to lavish his income on a capricious mistress who promises delights he can only occasionally enjoy.” Mumford, The Highway and the City, 234-235.

43. Buffalo News, October 18 ,1955, section2, 19 (ad for 1956 Pontiac); Buffalo News, October 20, 1955, section 3, 66 (ad for “aerodynamic” 1956 Plymouth). On the impact of aircraft design on automobiles, see Hine, Populuxe, 85-87, 89-91.

44. Courier-Express, January 18, 1955, 5 (Dodge ad).

45. Buffalo News, October 18, 1955, section 2, 3 (“Forward Look”); Buffalo News, October 18, 1955, section 3, 46 (“touch of tomorrow”). Indeed, automobiles were so thoroughly identified with progress and the future that the industry’s habit of introducing annual model changes had made inroads into home appliances, where consumers could purchase not just the latest Norge washing machine, but “the ’56 Norge Washer.” Buffalo News, October 19, 1955, section 6, 100 (Norge). The fascination with automobiles and super-highways is wonderfully captured in the concluding scenes of the 1962 film, How the West Was Won.

46. “Traffic Streaming,” 10 (naming). The Western New York Civic Progress Association had suggested the name “Skyway” in 1951 for a proposed elevated highway to be built between the high-level bridge and Tifft St. The structure was to be known as the “gateway to the West.” City of Buffalo, Proceedings of the Common Council, 1951 (n.p., n.d.), pt. 2, 1913, July 24, 1951.

47. Buffalo News, October 18, 1955, section 2, 3 (Chrysler); Buffalo News, October 28, 1955, section 3, 36 (Catalina); Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Signet Books, 1957), 111.

48. W.T. Lhamon Jr., Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 28-29. The television program Highway Patrol, starring Broderick Crawford, premiered on October 25, 1955, the Tuesday after the Skyway opened. Buffalo News, October 25, 1955, section 3, 30, ad for Highway Patrol.

49. Buffalo News, October 18, 1955, section2, 28 (BIG MERCURY); Courier-Express,October 16, 1955, “American Weekly” magazine section (Looks BIG); Courier-Express, January 21, 1955, 24 (No Car SO BIG).

50. Courier-Express, October 26, 1955, 10 (The Last Command); Courier-Express, October 19, 1955, 12 (The Tall Men).

51. On Cinerama and its “illusion of movement,” see J. Ronald Oakley, God’s Country: America in the Fifties (New York: Dembner Books, 1986), 261.

52. Edward P. Lupfer, “The Peace Bridge,” B.A.C. Backer 5 (December 1, 1926): 46; E. P. Lupfer, “Builder of Bridge Says Aim was to Cement Peace,” Buffalo Courier, August 7, 1927, in Local Biographies, v. 21 (Lep-Ly), Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collec- tion; Edward P. Lupfer, “Humanities Vital to Engineers,” Buffalo News, October 13, 1954, in Local Biographies, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collection; “Edward P. Lupfer,” Buffalo Business, January 1950, in Local Biographies A-Z, Ser. 18, 96 (Rainbow Bridge). See also “Edward P. Lupfer, Builder of the Peace Bridge, Dies,” Buffalo Evening News, December 14, 1962, in Local Biographies Ser. 31 (1962), 120-121.

53. Leonidas T. Delyannis, “Past and Future in the Design and Construction of Concrete Bridges,” in Concrete Bridge Design, First International Symposium (1966 and 1967), ACI Publication SP-23 (Detroit: American Concrete Institute, 1969), 5

54. Amy E. Slayton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900–1930 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 168-188.

55. Delyannis,“Past and Future in Design and Construction of Concrete Bridges, ”2-3; author’s telephone interview with Joe Freeman, Buffalo, New York, July 13, 2005.

56. Matthew Wells, “Bridge Design: A Brief History,” in Wells, 30 Bridges (New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002), 32; Jeffrey L. Meikle, Twentieth-Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925–1939 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), 4, 19, 38-67, 146-147, 203, and passim.

57. Goldman, City on the Lake, 57.

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