Preservationists push for renaming planned Brooklyn Bridge Plaza after Emily Roebling

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A rendering of Brooklyn Bridge Plaza and a portrait of Emily Warren Roebling from 1896.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates/Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran

They want to mark her-story!

Preservationists want to rename a planned pedestrian plaza beneath Brooklyn Bridge after Emily Roebling, who oversaw the completion of the borough’s namesake span, saying that the pioneer should get a worthy tribute at the base of the Brooklyn tower of the bridge.

“That tower holds a part of Emily’s soul,” said longtime park activist Judi Francis. “The story of the great bridge would not be a story without Emily.”

Plans for the two-acre civic space — dubbed “Brooklyn Bridge Plaza” by Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation, the stewards of the waterfront green space — received the go-ahead from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee on May 19, but a representative for the park’s community feedback group the said the moniker did a disservice to the iconic site.

“Naming this historical and cultural site ‘Brooklyn Bridge Plaza’ seems to demean and diminish the site’s significance,” Community Advisory Council member Doreen Gallo testified at the virtual Tuesday landmarks hearing.

Preservationists have advocated for naming the space at Brooklyn’s Front Yard after Roebling since 2018, during community engagement sessions, the Brooklyn Eagle reported at the time. A popular name that arose among the council during the planning process was “Emily Warren Roebling Square,” according to Gallo. 

Roebling led the construction of Kings County’s iconic connector to completion after her husband Washington Roebling became bedridden from contracting caisson disease, also known as the bends. Washington previously took over from his father, the German-American suspension bridge engineer John Roebling, who designed the monument.

After the bridge’s completion in 1883, Emily was the first person to cross it — reportedly riding inside a horse-drawn carriage with a rooster, symbolic of victory, on her lap.

The president of Brooklyn Bridge Park Eric Landau said he has been supportive of the idea since it came up during the planning of the square’s design with the CAC, but that a change like that would need to go through City Hall, for example via Mayor Bill de Blasio’s She Built NYC initiative to erect more statues of historic women in the Five Boroughs.

“We think she is a very important New York City figure and naming the square after her, we’re very supportive of that,” said Eric Landau. “I would consider that to be a significant change, and of course we would run that through the mayor’s office.”

The green space guru plans to break ground on the project in late fall and wrap construction in December 2021, and he hopes to resolve the naming in an appropriate way by the time the square opens.

“We would probably look to do the official naming to coordinate with the ribbon cutting of the site,” he said.

Roebling’s name graces a plaque on the bridge, along with her husband’s and her father-in-law’s names, and in 2018, the city co-named a block of Columbia Heights after her, between Pineapple and Orange streets near where she and Washington once lived and could watch the construction of the bridge from their window.

The space was significant for her specifically, because she would go from her Brooklyn Heights home down to the construction site, traversing the square and climbing up a spiral staircase at the Brooklyn tower leading to the bridge’s roadway, according to “The Great Bridge,” David McCullough’s 1972 book about the span’s construction.

But her contribution to the first bridge connecting Brooklyn and distant Manhattan — proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” at the time — was often overshadowed in history by the male Roeblings.

After her death in 1903 at the age of 59, Brooklyn’s one-time paper of record published an obituary, but it took the New York Times another 115 years to do the same. In 2018, the Times recognized her importance of “managing, liaising and politicking between city officials, workers, and her husband’s bedside to see the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion.”

The space beneath the bridge marks the final section of the 14-year redevelopment of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Francis, who has advocated for the waterfront green space for even longer, said that now is the time to honor Roebling’s legacy. 

“This is the pedestal on which the Brooklyn Bridge rests,” Francis said. “We have one last chance to really make real the ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and that is a tribute to Emily Warren Roebling.”