Designing Gotham Cover

Designing Gotham

West Point Engineers and the Rise of Modern New York, 1817–1898

Jon Scott Logel

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2016, 280 pages

Book Review published on: July 27, 2018

Every now and then, a historical study highlights seemingly mundane past events and people that collectively and unexpectedly contribute to great moments in our lives. In Designing Gotham, Jon Scott Logel achieves this feat by boldly donning the history instructor’s hat he earned at the U.S. Military Academy, or West Point, which was founded in 1802 to train young men as engineers and Army officers. He meticulously examines how high-performing cadets trained as engineers, gained experience as Army officers, and eventually developed into effective municipal administrators. These early academy graduates translated their military experiences into nation building that was epitomized by Victorian New York City. That the city of pestilence, competitive power brokers managed by Tammany Hall, and a diminutive island unified to become the world’s metropolis in the contemporary era is no coincidence. Logel’s book is a convincing account of how technical expertise promoted the reputations of both West Point and New York City in three major ways: (1) as the intersection of professionalism, political power, and military reputations; (2) by the credibility of the study derived from its rigor; and (3) through the continued challenges of reconciling U.S. military training with education.

First, Logel deftly interweaves narratives of military academy-trained civil engineers with laudatory war records with the political power brokers of Gotham. He scopes the study by focusing on five academy graduates (George Greene, Egbert Viele, John Newton, Henry Warner Slocum, and Fitz John Porter) who, by 1870, had served their Nation in uniform and had established themselves as leading proponents of their profession in a city they helped form. Logel is careful not to attribute all of the masterful infrastructure solely to them—after all, Frederick Law Olmsted did the final design for Central Park, for example—but he does address a gap by documenting how their contributions were a necessary foundation for the final successes of ambitious projects such as the Croton Aqueduct, Prospect Park, and the Erie Canal. His logical flow and organization allows the reader to follow the various narratives as a holistic phenomenon.

In this sense, Designing Gotham is a credible testament derived from the author’s rigorous research and attention to detail. For example, he does not hesitate to correct previous histories and underscore the singular contribution of Emily Roebling in the construction of her ailing husband’s Brooklyn Bridge. The author cites numerous theorists (e.g., Samuel Huntington, Auguste Comte, and David Douglass) and practitioners (e.g., Sylvanus Thayer, father of the U.S. Military Academy’s academic regimen, and Dennis Mahan, chief professor of engineering for generations of cadets who would lead forays during the Mexican War and the Civil War) to justify key points. These carefully packaged case studies of Greene, Viele, Newton, Slocum, and Porter logically flow into significant conclusions that support the book’s purpose of linking the experiences of West Pointers to the relationships they developed in building an icon of the American dream: Gotham.

Finally, Logel illustrates how the then young academy’s struggle to balance technical training with liberal education continues today. West Point’s early leaders believed in using the French model of training young cadets to become military leaders through professional civil engineering training at a time when it was the only engineering school in the country. Thayer and Mahan, as Logel explains, could later justify their academic program of experienced-based learning by citing the numerous alumni who not only commanded major military campaigns but also designed, surveyed, and administered the construction of a young nation. While Logel delights in the details of this multilayered narrative, he could also do more to facilitate its delivery. For instance, a map that depicts all major infrastructure projects in relation to each other and the emerging metropolitan area could greatly help readers unfamiliar with New York’s topography understand the three-dimensional challenges these West Pointers faced with aplomb.

In summary, Designing Gotham is a good read for security professionals who seek to resolve military technical expertise with political restraints in terms of professionalism, credibility, and training-education friction points. Logel’s unique analysis provides a refreshing new perspective on how a few academy-trained engineers had a lasting impact upon one of the world’s great metropolises.

Book Review written by: David T. Culkin, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas