Rudolf Modrzejewski – Artist of Concrete & Steel
portrait, Rudolf Modrzejewski, reproduction: Marek Skorupski / Forum, center, rudolf_modrzejewski-portret-forum.jpg
An engineering genius and pioneer in the construction of modern suspension bridges. He links the states of America and strengthens neighbourly ties by building steel spans which connect them. He breaks the boundaries of conventional bridge construction as well of the imagination.
From Dolcio to Ralph
Born in Bochnia, Rudolf – known as Dolcio – spends his early childhood in the theatrical dressing rooms of his mother Helena Modrzejewska. His parents, who are in an informal relationship, separate and he is abducted by his father Gustaw Zimajer. Some years later, his mother succeeds in ransoming her son.
At age four, the child picks up a screwdriver and dismantles a door lock. When he reaches 14, he dreams of taking part in the building of the planned Panama Canal. Slightly over a decade later, he builds his first bridge in the United States.
The decision to travel overseas in 1876 is driven by Helena Modrzejewska’s acting ambitions, soon to be fulfilled. Rudolf quickly masters English and becomes Ralph Modjeski: but only to Americans. At home, only Polish is spoken and the family faithfully adheres to Polish holiday traditions. Helena bakes buns with filling which she learned to prepare when she worked in her mother’s café in Kraków: the first in the city to have a separate women’s entrance.
Rudolf continues the piano lessons which he started at age ten. He often practices playing with their frequent guest, virtuoso pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. It is to Paderewski that Helena will later bequeath her sweet bun recipe.
Man of steel
Rather than becoming a piano virtuoso himself, Modrzejewski becomes an ‘artist of concrete and steel’, as the American press styles him. He undertakes studies at the prestigious École nationale des ponts et chaussées (State Road and Bridge School) in Paris. In 1885, he graduates with a distinction in engineering, even though he had only passed the entrance examination on his second try.
He briefly returns to his native land in order to seek the hand of his distant cousin Felicja Bendówna. The wedding takes place in New York at the Polish church of St Stanislaus. The marriage ultimately proves unsuccessful, but he manages to imprint his engineering talent on the genes of his sons and grandsons. His daughter opts for painting.
Upon his return to the United States, he obtains a position in the engineering firm of George S. Morison. The opportunity to gain experience at the side of an outstanding bridge builder must compensate him for his rather meagre salary. His mother supports him, having become well-known in the States for her roles in Shakespearean drama.
In 1893, he begins working for himself. He sets up the construction company Modjeski & Masters in Chicago, which continues to operate to this day. He opens branches in New York and New Orleans.
Three years later, he connects the states of Iowa and Illinois, building a bridge spanning the Mississippi River. A rail line runs along its upper deck with the lower level carrying a road for automobiles. An additional swing bridge opens the space up to shipping. He soon repeats this success with a continuous-truss railway bridge in Thebes.
An avalanche of praise and project proposals follows. The professional association of engineers names Modjeski ‘engineer of the year’ in 1903. Americans in a press poll call him ‘the greatest bridge builder’. Years later, David Plowden likens Modjeski’s projects to cathedrals of steel, monuments to the American industrial revolution. Journalists refer to him ‘the Napoleon of bridge builders’.
Modjeski enjoys his position as a leader in the field. He celebrates America’s sesquicentennial by opening the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia (1926). Its suspended roadbed is 533-metres long: at the time, the longest such object in the world. In 1929, he builds the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, surpassing his own record with a construction over 560 metres in length.
An engineer for special tasks
Modjeski builds nearly 40 bridges over the continent’s greatest waterways, specialising in suspended structures. He uses the newest technology and materials: innovative steel alloys, reinforced concrete for the paving of roadways and flexible steel pylons rather than the traditional stone towers.
From his position of a working engineer, Modjeski achieves a reputation as an expert. He takes part in numerous commissions investigating construction accidents. He establishes, for example, the causes of the collapse of the St Lawrence railway bridge in Quebec – one of the greatest tragedies in the history of bridge building.
He also shares his knowledge in scientific publications. His 1913 paper on the construction of large bridges becomes a classic in the field. He is granted a doctorate in engineering by the University of Illinois and gains an honorary degree from the Lviv Polytechnic.
He receives three awards from the American Institute of Steel Construction for the best-looking bridges and the Franklin Medal, the John Fritz Gold Medal (America’s highest honour for engineering accomplishments) and the Washington Award. From the French Government, he receives the Cross of the Legion of Honour. From the Polish Government, he receives an award at the General National Exposition in Poznań.
Before taking off on his well-deserved retirement, Modjeski teaches others the craft of bridge building. One of his students is Joseph B. Strauss who would go on to design the famed Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Modjeski dies in the garden of his Hollywood villa on 26th June 1940.
Translated by Yale Reisner