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Connecticut Scenic Drives: Merritt Parkway

Built with pride in the 1930s as a "Parkway," Merritt Parkway in Connecticut is more sinuous than modern highways, winding its way through parklike landscaping and under Art Deco bridges. Truck-free, it's an alternative to I-95 through Connecticut to New York City.

Merritt Parkway is one of the only roads listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction usually reserved for buildings or battlefields. Drive Merritt Parkway, and see for yourself why it inspires both reverence and devotion among fans and supporters, many of whom use it daily or live near its winding path through Connecticut's Fairfield County. Built in the 1930s to cope with America's new fascination with the automobile, this byway is enshrined in the hearts of many as an icon of the automobile age and a model of highway planning.

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Cultural Qualities of Merritt Parkway

As a scenic byway, Merritt Parkway has won national acclaim. From political leaders to talk show hosts, everyone has something to say about this parkway, and it always has something to do with the beautiful scenery visitors will experience on the prettiest drive in Connecticut.

The road is half a century old and is traveled daily by at least 60,000 vehicles, but it remains a perfect combination of nature and industry. Perhaps it is because of the amount of travel that occurs on the road that it has become part of our nation's cultural heritage. Whatever the case, people inside and outside of Connecticut know about the Merritt Parkway.

Qualities of Merritt Parkway

On July 1, 1934, Oscar Tuthill, the First Selectman of Greenwich, turned a spade of earth at King Street near the Connecticut–New York border to begin construction of the Merritt Parkway, which was among the first parkways in the nation and the first median-divided, limited-access highway in Connecticut. Its name was changed from Merritt Highway to Merritt Parkway one year after construction began. On September 2, 1940, just more than six years later, the final section of the roadway was completed and the entire parkway opened to traffic.

Follow this map of Merritt Parkway.

Described by one historian as "one of the most beautiful and best-engineered highways of the time," the parkway was built to solve traffic problems in the state. Before the parkway, local motorists and long-distance travelers were forced to compete for the same highway space. Drivers could move only at slow speeds, and merchants in communities along the route were upset because their customers were unable to find convenient parking.

The Merritt Parkway was a direct product of a period in American road-building history when there was a great deal of interest in linking urbanized regions with graceful highways set in natural surroundings. This parkway quickly emerged as a national model. To ensure a natural appearance, long, gradual, vertical curves were designed. Rock cuts were rounded and landscaped to produce a natural setting. The Merritt Parkway's designers attempted to integrate the traveled way into the roadside and its surroundings. The landscaping of the parkway followed closely upon completion, attempting to heal the scars of construction.

In addition to the roadside beauty that can be viewed while driving along the Merritt Parkway, motorists are also treated to a unique exhibition of ornamental bridges. These structures were the creation of George Dunkelberger, an innovative bridge designer and architect. There were originally 69 bridges, with some carrying the parkway under intersecting roads and railroad tracks and others carrying the parkway over intersecting roads and rivers.

These bridges were designed primarily in the Art Moderne and Art Deco styles, with no two alike. In the more than 50 years since the parkway's completion, three of the original bridges have been replaced and a number of others have been altered in response to needed maintenance or repair, but the bridges still remain a scenic element of the byway.

The 37-mile roadway now stretches across Fairfield County from the town of Greenwich to the Housatonic River in the town of Stratford. The stately, neatly landscaped parkway connects the Hutchinson River Parkway at the New York state line with the Wilbur Cross Parkway at Stratford. Together, the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways form part of Route 15 in Connecticut.

In 1991, the parkway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a statement of its role as a nationally recognized cultural resource as well as a valued part of Connecticut's heritage. It is also a critical transportation facility for the southwestern part of the state. In early 1992, the parkway was designated as a State Scenic Road, further highlighting its importance to Connecticut's character. Six decades since its creation, millions of motorists from all over the nation still enjoy the scenic beauty of the parkway, especially its brilliant spring displays and rich autumn foliage.

Qualities of Merritt Parkway

The bridges of the Merritt Parkway make it unique, but the landscaping plays another important role for the parkway. The green trees and lawns that surround the parkway in the warmer months of the year are missed in the winter. Each fall, the landscaping reveals its more colorful side, and the Merritt Parkway becomes one of the most popular byways in the country. The landscaping on the parkway avoids being urbanesque by appearing to be the rolling hills of a New England wood.

Over the years, the placement of trees along the parkway has been carefully considered and maintained. When Merritt Parkway was first constructed, landscape architect Weld Thayer Chase selected the exact location for each major new tree. It was the vision of landscape artist Earl Wood to rely on native plant species rather than introduce exotic ones.

The landscapers talked the parkway engineers into saving many existing trees along the route and transplanting plants scheduled for removal in temporary nurseries to be reused after construction. The rolling hills along the parkway were also carefully landscaped. The jagged outcrops of stone exposed by blasting were covered with pockets of plant materials, and it helped to retain the natural feel of the parkway.

Dealing with Dunkelberger's bridges presented a special challenge, since some planting was needed to help them blend in. Chase solved the problem of revealing the abutments of the bridges by planting low, spreading shrubs as ground cover near the bridges and larger trees in clusters angling back from the abutments. The parkway plants continue to grow and flourish today. Current landscape architects still carefully place new trees along the byway to preserve its natural look. So take a leisurely drive along the Merritt Parkway and enjoy nature as you travel from one city to another.

Qualities of Merritt Parkway

The Merritt Parkway was designed and built as a driver's road. Efficiency and speed took a back seat to the enjoyment of those who would sit in the front seat, especially the driver. Understandably, the primary form of recreation that is available is simply driving the Merritt Parkway.

With an engaging variety of twists and turns, intriguing highway architecture, and lush, native surroundings, the Merritt Parkway has become a popular route for tourists and commuters alike. Due to its popularity, morning and afternoon rush hours are not the most pleasant times to travel the route and should be avoided if possible. At other times, a drive down the Merritt Parkway is a memorable driving experience that anyone can appreciate.

Find more useful information related to Connecticut's Merritt Parkway:

  • Connecticut Scenic Drives: Merritt Parkway is just one of the scenic byways in Connecticut. Check out the others.
  • New Canaan, Trumball: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Merritt Parkway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Connecticut? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

Highlights of Merritt Parkway

Pastoral views like this one are plentiful along Merritt Parkway.
Pastoral views like this one are plentiful along Merritt Parkway.

For many, the 69 original bridges are the heart of the special appeal of Connecticut's Merritt Parkway. The popular belief is that a different designer made each bridge; however, they are all the work of a single architectural designer, George Dunkelberger.

The Merritt Parkway bridges have no style or icon that threads them together as a result of Dunkelberger's eclectic design ideas. It takes a keen eye to catch what is going on in the metal balustrade of the Merwins Lane Overpass in the town of Fairfield. This includes small butterflies caught in a stylized metal spider web that are about to be devoured by the web's builders.

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The low relief sculpture on the Comstock Hill Road Overpass in Norwalk, the work of Milford sculptor Edward Ferrari, is adorned with the bust of a Pilgrim or Native American, apparent references to New England's colonial past. Not all the bridges are so subtle, however. Some use bold forms as the basis of their design.

The Morehouse Highway Bridge, with its series of steplike sections that march downward from one side of the cut to the other, is one example. The Lake Avenue Bridge in Greenwich is unusual in that the metal arches are not shrouded in concrete, but span the roadway in two graceful segmental arcs bedecked with cast-iron vines.

A scenic alternative to other north-south corridors, the Merritt Parkway gives easy access to some of the activities and attractions listed here.

Boothe Memorial Park and Museum: Near the northern end of Merritt Parkway, in the town of Stratford is the Boothe Memorial Park and Museum. The Boothe Family resided on this 32-acre estate from the mid-1600s to 1949. Ten of the 20 historic buildings have been restored at this National Historic Landmark. Displays include early farm equipment, carriages, trolley history, and more. The site also has a beautiful rose garden, an observatory and educational center, picnic facilities, and playground.

New Canaan Nature Center: Taking exit 37 off the Merritt Parkway and passing through the center of New Canaan, the New Canaan Nature Center is just a mile north on Route 124. The center has 40 acres of habitat diversity and walking trails, an apple cider house, and maple sugar shack. The nature center also features a visitor center with natural science exhibits, a Discovery Center, a solar greenhouse, an arboretum, and various gardens. To go back to Merritt Parkway, return back through New Canaan.

John Rogers Studio and Museum: The John Rogers Studio and Museum was built in 1878 by John Rogers, famous as "the people's sculptor" in the latter half of the 19th century. The studio is now a National Historic Landmark, containing a large collection of Rogers' statuary, many of them sculpted on site. Visitors can also tour the Hanford Silliman House, once an 18th-century tavern and inn.

Silvermine Guild Arts Center: Just outside of town is the Silvermine Guild Arts Center. It began more than a century ago as a colony for artists and writers founded by sculptor Solon Borglum, brother of famed Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, in 1895. Today the Silvermine Guild Arts Center features a gallery of changing exhibits with works from both local newcomers and nationally renowned artists.

Bush–Holley Historic Site: Connecticut's first art colony was in the town of Greenwich at the southern end of Merritt Parkway. Now a National Historic Landmark from around 1730, the Bush–Holley Historic Site features the Bush–Holley home, an 1805-period visitor center housed in a former post office, and the Hugh and Clair Vanderbilt Education Center, set in the historic barn and artists' studio. The grounds and gardens have been restored to the appearance they had when the Cos Cob Impressionist Art Colony thrived with more than 200 students here between 1890 and 1920. Tour guides enhance your visit to the house, and you may explore the grounds at your leisure.

Putnam Cottage: Known as Knapp's Tavern during the Revolutionary War, Putnam Cottage was a popular gathering place for patriot leaders and ordinary travelers along the Boston Post Road. General Washington was even known to have eaten lunch here. But it gained fame as a hideout for General Israel Putnam when he heroically escaped from the Redcoats. Placed under the care of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1906, Putnam Cottage is a repository of Colonial artifacts and is open to the public as a historical museum.

The Merritt Parkway is one of the oldest parkways in the United States and is acknowledged for the beauty of the land that it passes through, as well as the architectural design of its overpasses. The scenic, cultural and environmental assets of Merritt Parkway truly make it one of the most scenic drive vacations in the nation.

Find more useful information related to Connecticut's Merritt Parkway:

  • Connecticut Scenic Drives: Merritt Parkway is just one of the scenic byways in Connecticut. Check out the others.
  • New Canaan, Trumball: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Merritt Parkway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Connecticut? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.