Beyond the Build

Leadership

My Road Trip Reminder: True Legacies Were Built in Our Country’s Darkest Financial Days

I’ve often thought that most builders strive for one of two major goals—to make the most money possible or to build a legacy. I’m not sure about you, but as a business owner I’d like to think at least some of what we do will go beyond legacy status and have a lasting impact to help others. I was reminded of that aspiration on a business trip to New York last week.

When I travel for work and I have the time, I try to take side roads as opposed to the major thoroughfares. As I mentioned here, you can get the true flavor of a place and see so much more than the generic interstate view. When I left LaGuardia to head north for the real estate we own, it was one of those days I had a little extra time. I passed over the Whitestone Bridge and I decided that instead of turning north on I-95 (that infamous road from Maine to Miami), I would forge straight ahead on New York State’s Hutchinson Parkway, which becomes the Merritt Parkway when it crosses the Connecticut line.

My impromptu side road tour turned into a meaningful history lesson. The Hutchinson, or “Hutch” as it’s referred to, and the Merritt were part of America’s Work Projects Administration (WPA) days. When men and women could not find employment, the government created this much-needed program to put folks back to work. Jobs were not only in concrete, steel and roads, like the Hutch and the Merritt, but in the arts. We supported all kinds of writing, including songs and poetry. My personal favorite WPA supported art is photography. These images are available from the Library of Congress and we’ve bought several to hang around the office. They provide beautiful architectural references and a first hand look at our country rising above the Depression.

Beyond the infrastructure of the highway, WPA workers crafted a unique collection of bridges along The Hutch and The Merritt. I believe there are about 70 bridges on the Merritt and every one of them is unique. Each has a distinctive style and uses different combinations of concrete forms, stone and shape. This year marks the 75th anniversary of The Merritt—a project that created a 4-lane road that has served the Northeast for almost 8 decades. They also built a heritage of beauty intrinsic to the bridges that span the Hutch and the Merritt.

Looking back at a harsh economy that produced projects with such lasting function and form can’t help but remind me of the challenges we as business leaders, builders and Americans are facing today. It’s inspirational to remember that true legacies were built during our country’s darkest financial days. I’ve challenged myself to stop making excuses and live with legacy top of mind. What can I do now to leave a lasting impact or the future?

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.