Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817–1898 by Jon Scott Logel (review)
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Designing Gotham: West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817–1898. By Jon Scott Logel (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2016) 262pp. $45.00

In Designing Gotham, Logel provides a service by reminding us that New York City did not build itself. Histories of the city are inclined to focus on the political and economic forces instrumental in the growth and development of the nation’s leading metropolis. One obvious exception is David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (New York,1972), a work celebrating heroic engineering on a massive scale. As Logel states, “While much of this urban transformation has been documented, the role of individuals educated at the U.S. Military Academy on the ‘S’ turn of the Hudson River remains mostly unexplored or unnoticed in New York history” (3).

Concentrating on West Pointers, especially in their civilian roles, Logel is particularly interested in demonstrating West Point’s production of “a body of experts who advanced science, technology, and engineering [End Page 278] throughout the nation, most notably through the Army Corps of Engineers” (4). A rich history of the Corps already exists, especially through the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History Office, but Logel’s book is much more urban in its focus and more assertive in its claim that West Point engineers through human relationships “forged uniquely American ideas in the development of engineering, professionalism, and civic administration”(5). Such a claim assumes a much deeper role for these engineers than mere construction, edging toward a central authority in city/regional planning and urban decision making. Logel wants to connect the work of his West Pointers to movers and shakers like William Marcy Tweed and Andrew Haswell Green (a little early for Robert Moses), who received more headlines for making the city than did the engineers.

Logel comes close to crossing a line that equates his engineers with the historically familiar city builders, but he never really crosses it. He justifiably accepts Crackel’s view that the military academy’s history reflected the nation, and that the individuals discussed shared a West Point experience that “shaped their actions and influence in the city” (7).1 But making the West Point engineers central to the study—to the exclusion of a broader context for the city—may overstate the case. Designing Gotham, therefore, should be viewed as a complementary study rather than as a corrective to our understanding of city building.

The eight chapters systematically lay out the players, their influences, and their actions. Chapter 1 outlines West Point’s influence in “Victorian Gotham”—helping to develop the American Society of Civil Engineers, setting urban development and public-works standards replicated through the country, and establishing relationships between technical professionals and political leaders. This useful structure would have been made stronger, however, by greater attention to New York City history itself, especially for events leading to consolidation in 1898. Chapters 2 and 3 tread familiar ground by discussing the education imparted at West Point, although the information is necessary to underline Logel’s major arguments.

Chapter 4 focuses on the early growth of New York City, the professionalization of civil engineers, the significance of the Croton Aqueduct (providing the city with its water supply), and the introduction of key participants. Logel makes a solid connection between the West Point system and important early features of the city’s growth, carefully explaining the extent of the engineers’ power in bringing about change. Chapter 5 turns to Central Park, opened in 1858. This topic usually focuses on Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, but Logel instead gives primary attention to Egbert Viele, the park’s chief engineer, who was replaced by Olmsted in May 1858. In one of the most interesting parts of the book, Logel follows Viele from Central Park through sanitation [End Page 279] reform to mass transit and elevated railroads, thus resurrecting an important figure worth further study.

In Chapters 6, Logel explores how engineers fulfilled or modified Green’s vision of New York. A lawyer, planner, and civic leader, Green is regarded as...