We all remember griffins from Harry Potter, but did you know you can see them when you’re driving on the Merritt Parkway?  Those and other esoteric designs, such as Nike Wings (not the sneaker), to the more everyday butterflies and spider webs, grace the bridges and overpasses along the 37.5 mile roadway. Adding to the beauty of your drive are the aesthetically pleasing landscapes of the median strip. The parkway, which runs through Fairfield County, was largely responsible for the county’s prosperity and population growth in the 20th century.  In fact, “…it was the opening of the parkway that helped precipitate the hegira to Fairfield County.”  Built to relieve highway congestion in New York and Connecticut, it became an alternate route to Post Road and accommodated recreational driving, known as the “Sunday drive.”  The cars only, no trucks policy, adds to the bucolic aura.

Heiss and Smyth divide the book, published on Oct. 21, into decades, spanning from the 1920s to the 2010s.  They add a touch of flare by subtitling each chapter with the most popular car of the decade and a song that would have played on the car radio at the time. For the 2000s, it’s the Toyota Prius Hybrid and “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Today, most young people see it as just a highway, but it was extremely important to the generations of the past because of “a needed job, a delightful escape, fall colors and spring blossoms, a Sunday family tradition, access to home ownership further from a job location, the joy of the golden age of the automobile [and] a new love affair with the road.”  The opening of the Merritt Parkway, therefore, had a major impact on the lives of Fairfield County residents who grew to appreciate its convenience. Over the years, they have sought to protect its integrity and preserve its special qualities for future generations.

The famous bridges of the parkway (all 72) were designed by artist and architect George Dunkelberger. He took into account the natural surroundings before individualizing the architectural designs of each bridge per road. The designs range from art deco to rustic stone-face to late Gothic revival and more. The Merritt comprises “a precious collection of diversely styled bridges with a touch of whimsy.”  Next time you find yourself in a traffic slow down on the parkway, take a longer look at one of these famed architectural masterpieces remembering the timeless significance of “the road that shaped a region.”

Interview with Laurie Heiss and Jill Smyth:

GW: Understanding your involvement in the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, what inspired you both to compile a book about the history behind the Merritt Parkway?

LH/JS: We were actually pursued by the History Press, the publisher for “The Merritt Parkway.”  I (Jill) was approached and realized I didn’t want to take on the project on my own, so I went to Laurie with the idea. The other Parkway books on the market are mostly out of print or outdated and predominantly books of photographs. We also felt publishing this now was a result of good timing since the Merritt’s 75th anniversary is next year.

GW: What is your favorite aspect of the parkway?

LH: There are certain bridges that I adore and I also enjoy the intimacy of the roadside, more specifically the framing of the road and the landscaping.

JS: I would say the most important and interesting aspect of the parkway is its influence on Fairfield County. When the Merritt first opened, it was a form of entertainment for drivers and it’s wonderful that we’re still able to experience the parkway in much of the same way.

GW: Is this your first writing project? Do either of you have anything planned for the future?

LH/JS: This is our first book both individually and jointly, however, I (Laurie) wrote segments of different business books and worked on an internal book for GE. I enjoy writing, whereas Jill prefers the research portion of preparing a book. However, this book was written and researched equally by both of us because we believe it is crucial to write from your own research. We don’t have anything planned yet in terms of another book.

GW: What was the hardest thing about writing this and obtaining such wonderful photographs to accompany the book?

LH/JS: The outline was probably the hardest part of the process along with the anxiety about overlooking anything in our research. Sometimes we would know a bit of information in the book was wrong that the editor had missed, but since they were on a tight schedule it would still go to print. We discovered the book distribution process to be very slow as well. Our main difficulties included everything from fact checking information to verifying sources to working with editors on a schedule to merging and sorting photographs into their correct placements including their captions. Obtaining high-resolution photographs was problematic because many of the pictures were so old or because taking a picture of something with our phones did not have a high enough image quality. Therefore, there were technological challenges as well. It seemed backwards to us that the photographs were due before the text in editorial; it would have been easier to fit the pictures in afterwards. Regarding research and ability to obtain sources, we were actually able to acquire a lot of primary sources from Buzz Merritt, whose great uncle was the namesake of the Merritt Parkway. He provided folders of papers and letters from the advisory meetings of the ‘80s.

GW: Your book is divided by decade. Which do you think was most influential in the growth and survival of the parkway?

LH/JS: The 1930s was the decade in which the Merritt was built, however, the activism of the 1970s was also highly influential.  Additionally, the 1920s was the decade in which people fought for a vision, an image in their minds, to create something beautiful out of the New York and Connecticut countryside. At this point in time, the project had not even been financed yet. There were immense hurdles throughout the ‘20s. The actual construction of the parkway happened relatively fast, but the plan and design of it all took 10 years. So, they had to keep the pressure on for about 10 years from the mid ‘20s to about 1934.

GW: What advice would you give researchers and writers?

LH/JS: Every time you read something for later use, write it down. Put all your information in the same place and fully document your sources. If you take a picture with your phone of crucial information, write a log of your sources. The key is organization and documentation.

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Laurie Heiss on left and Jill Smyth on right. (from Saturday, Nov. 15 at the Fairfield University Bookstore). Author meet and greet for their book released on Oct. 21, “The Merritt Parkway: The Road that Shaped a Region.”

 

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