The Merits of the Merritt

Photo: Bernard Hoffman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The World Monuments Fund’s Watch List, a compilation of some of the most precious and endangered man-made structures in the world, this year included Connecticut’s own Merritt Parkway. While it might seem obvious why we need to preserve and protect the Taos Pueblo, or a cave that served as a prehistoric settlement in South Africa, why a highway? Because like the Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm in Uzbekistan, or the Petroglyphs of the Diamer-Basha Dam basin in Pakistan, its beguiling design could very easily be effaced in a blunder of progress, the rush to accommodate the crowding and sprawl of contemporary suburbs.

Completed in 1940, the 37.5 mile–long Merritt—which travels from the state line in Greenwich to the Housatonic River in Stratford—represents the ideal of a Sunday drive through the country. At one time, it was common practice to picnic on its banks. The parkway was built on a parcel of land twice as wide as was necessary, ensuring that the road exists in an agreeable forest of green. And this is to neglect to mention not only the first-rate landscaping done around the road at its inception (some of it overgrown now) but also the sublime, playful, and remarkable overpasses and underpasses designed by one George Dunkelberger. Each bridge is different, each of a different era of architecture, from Neo-Gothic to Art Deco. If you grew up around the Merritt, as I did, you invented elaborate stories for each and every one of these structures. Here is the bridge (Guinea Road, Greenwich) in which a hunchbacked monk must live! Here’s the one in New Canaan that leads to some maiden secreted in a castle (Ponus Ridge Road).

The Watch List specifically mentions these bridges because the Merritt, which in my youth was rarely jammed up, has continued to swell with vehicles—during rush hours, especially around Bridgeport and Stamford, it is nearly as challenging as its homely younger sibling to the south, I-95. How to preserve these septuagenarians as they begin to show their wear and tear? In the late nineties, the state managed to replicate the original Dunkelberger design of an overpass at Exit 38. But will that cautious approach still be possible if, as has been proposed at least twice before, you double the road’s width?

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy and other civic groups have done an admirable job raising their voices against undue tinkering with the road’s design and character (and you can see, in Greenwich, how the medians on the parkway have been replaced with an updated design that is not all concrete and practicality). The parkway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Still, on occasion, political or pragmatic considerations have triumphed over the objections of preservationists, as in the brutish freeway overpasses created in the Trumbull area (around Exit 48), whose design-free chutes more resemble what a cow hurtles down on the way to becoming a steak than the parkway running beneath. More-contemporary ramps and overpasses were planned for Exit 40 in Norwalk, but preservationists have had to intervene to attempt to keep the design close to the original spirit of the Merritt Parkway.

The Merritt evokes a New England that was more green, more rural, and more countrified than what surrounds the road now, just out of view. And this is in part because the road helped popularize the suburbs in the first place, by making them accessible and presentable. But the World Monuments Fund selected the parkway because it’s far too easy to pull things down in order to make room for the new—even if you never set foot in the old Penn Station, you mourn it. And a recession always gives developers political cover. But if the green and pleasant New England suburbs of the mid-twentieth century are not so far off as those Pakistani petroglyphs, they were just as fervent, just as compelling, just as idealistic—and when they are gone, they will be just as lost. Which is why it’s worth trying to stop progress, in this case, from blundering again.

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The Merits of the Merritt