Merritt Parkway ‘endangered’

In Connecticut, highways are an endangered species.

At least one highway is, anyway: the Merritt Parkway, a 38-mile-long stretch of winding roads and scenic views from Greenwich to Stratford.

The highway made the international nonprofit World Monuments Fund’s list of “irreplaceable” and endangered global treasures last week — in the company of the Biblical city of Lod in Israel and the Machu Picchu ruins of Peru. Supporters of the parkway feared that ongoing restorations by the state Department of Transportation intended to make the highway safe are destroying the highway’s unique charm.

Although the Connecticut Department of Transportation says it tries to preserve the Merritt’s rich landscape, ConnDOT officials and highway supporters have disagreed in recent years on how to improve the road and the surrounding forestry.

Built in the 1930s, the Parkway was intended for cars going a leisurely 35 mph, not today’s high speeds. More than simply a road to get drivers from one place to another, it provides a uniquely relaxing experience, said Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, the nonprofit that nominated the road for a slot on the World Monuments Fund list. She touted its gently rolling topography, quintessentially New England landscape and historic stone bridges.

To Herbert Newman, a critic at Yale School of Architecture, the Parkway is a national treasure — “the single most beautiful [man-made construction] in Connecticut, and maybe in the United States,” he said.

“It is to Connecticut what Yellowstone is to Wyoming and the Grand Canyon is to Colorado and Arizona,” said Newman, who has advised ConnDOT on the preservation of the Merritt since the early 1990s.

Though Merritt fans consider it living history, it was once a symbol of modernity. One of the first parkways ever built, it marked an important development in the evolution of the American landscape, said Erica Avrami, World Monuments Fund’s director of research and education.

“It’s emblematic of the role of the automobile,” she said. “The idea of ribbons of highway going through green fields connecting cities and suburbs is a truly American concept.”

The bridges across the Merritt — which were built in different architectural styles that include Art Deco, Neoclassical, and French Renaissance — earned the Merritt its place on the World Monuments Fund list, Avrami said. In many cases, it would be less expensive to build new bridges than to renovate the old ones, she said, but doing so would drastically change the appearance of the scenic parkway.

Most drivers on the Merritt aren’t aware that they are enjoying a priceless American treasure, but the list is intended to change that, Avrami said.

She said the World Monuments Fund created the list to attract attention to cultural landmarks and to bring to the fore discussions about conservation and the preservation of heritage.

ConnDOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said the department is committed to preserving the heritage of the Parkway, and knows it is more than just any old road. He said a committee comprised of highway stakeholders, architectural and landscaping experts and the Merritt Parkway Conservancy advise the department before it begins any work on the Parkway.

Even so, disagreements sometimes arise. In 2006, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy sued ConnDOT over a plan that would have drastically altered the highway’s aesthetic at its intersection with Route 7 in Norwalk, Conn.

Newman said he and other Merritt fans are currently at “loggerheads” with ConnDOT over a plan that is underway near Trumbull, Conn., which will restore 12 bridges, but also involves the removal of many trees.

Nursick said removing the trees makes the highway safer because some are placed where they could fall onto the road, or where drivers who swerved off the road might hit them. He said ConnDOT also wants to remove invasive plant species, which do not belong in the historic landscape. Nursick said the department wants to keep the highway beautiful — when construction is finished, workers will install roughly $2 million in new trees and plants in the now-barren Trumbull area.

“When it’s done, it’s going to look pristine, and it’s going to be historically accurate,” he said. “The Merritt is the queen of [Connecticut’s] highways, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Overall, ConnDOT has been willing to compromise with the highway’s devoted stewards, Newman said.

“This can be a win-win situation, not an adversarial issue,” he said. “But it takes constant vigilance and cheerleading. It’s not by major things that [the highway] could die, but little things, being chipped away.”


  • student

    ridiculous!!! they can waste money on this, but not put a pedestrian signal on college street where yalies keep getting killed and thousands of people are FORCED to cross against 55 mile per hour traffic just to get to work at the medschool????

  • RealityCheck

    You are right student! And I have to point out the Merritt Parkway is not on the list of Endangered Places it’s bridges are. Just a little clarification.

  • *sniff*

    Um… if the persistent posts by #1 are some attempt at satire, the effect has long worn off. Thousands manage to survive the mean streets of New Haven–you can too.

  • JCvP

    I think the big need on the Parkway is an alternate way for deer and other wild animals to cross without being killed and destroying cars and people in the process. Other roadways have accomplished that with fencing, tunnels, bridges, etc. Each time you see a deer’s corpse along the road, think of the car that was wrecked, the driver injured, and the fawns left to die.

  • Goldie ’08

    I have great memories of the drive up to Yale on the Merritt

  • RealityCheck

    Unfortunately, the preservationists have a myopic view of the work to be performed on the parkway. They are not concerned about improvements or bridges being rehabilitated, but with leaving things as is! A tunnel for animals, as great as that may sound, does not fit into their vision.

  • Ed Bayer

    If I am not mistaken, the Merritt Parkway was not only the first parkway in the United States, but also the first limited-access highway in the United States.

  • David Golub ES 2010

    The Merritt Parkway was not the first limited-access highway in the country. That distinction goes to the Motor Parkway on Long Island, which was originally built as a private road by wealthy landowners who lived in the area at the time. It has since been converted into a public road but is no longer limited-access.

    David Golub

  • Cars Always Win

    Driving up 95 through Clinton to New London I notice a lot of trees that could “fall” on the highway-and are at least as close as the ones on the Merritt- perhaps we should cut them down too and build the pedestrian bridge with them………

  • James T. Madison

    The Merritt Parkway is NOT the oldest parkway or limited access road in the United States, although it is awfully nice. The section of the Merritt from Greenwich to Norwalk opened on June 29, 1938, and the section from Norwalk to the Housatonic River opened in 1940.

    It is not hard to find older parkways. For example, construction of the Southern State Parkway on Long Island began in 1925, its first section opened in 1927, and by 1932 the four-lane, undivided road extended to Suffolk County.

    Although its meaning has changed over time, the word “parkway” in this context was coined by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted around 1870. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway (Brooklyn) were built at that time, but they are landscaped boulevards, not limited access roads. Similar parkways were built around Boston in a new park and road system, including the Mystic Valley Parkway (1895). But the New York City area set trends in the early 20th century, including the Bronx River Parkway (1907) and the Long Island Motor Parkway (aka the Vanderbilt Parkway) in 1906. In the 1920s, the parkway system around New York City grew extensively. Many of those 1920’s parkways were built as divided, landscaped, limited access roads; that is, as modern parkways.

  • Y11

    I love the Merritt. It’s actually enjoyable to drive on, and all those “dangerous” trees are half the reason. Leave it be.

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