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Sam Hall Kaplan

His Interest in Bridges Spans Form, Function

July 11, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Because the tendency is to look out over bridges instead of at them, we often do not see how beautiful they can be.

To me, a bridge in its single-minded purpose of spanning space, when engineered with grace, can also span function and aesthetics as no other man-made structure.

Thoughts of bridges were prompted by an invitation to a party tonight on the historic Colorado Street Bridge over the Arroyo Seco. Being celebrated is the 10th anniversary of Pasadena Heritage, an indomitable group that over the years has fought for the preservation of the bridge as well as the other frail local landmarks. (Admission to the fete beginning at 7:30 is $12 per person at the bridge.)

The party featuring three live bands, strolling musicians, magicians and mimes, dancing and other diversions also will celebrate the bridge, a civil engineering delight listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its two-lane, 1,467 1/2-foot-long, 150-foot-high, curving span will of course be closed to traffic for the event.

Dedicated in 1913 as the highest concrete span in the world, the bridge for years served as a vital link between Pasadena and Los Angeles, which had shared the $250,000 construction cost. It was designed by John Alexander Low Waddell, with an assist from John Drake Mercereau, the contractor, and his engineer, C. K. Allin.

The bridge gained fame as a setting for scenes in such movies as "Roman Scandals," in which Eddie Cantor drove his chariot underneath the span. And in a stunt for a Paramount newsreel celebrating Flag Day, 1926, pilot Al Goebel flew a biplane under the bridge with a woman hanging from each wing. The bridge gained a more dubious fame in the 1930s as the scene of an increasing number of suicides; nine in 1933, 10 in 1934 and 12 in 1935. To discourage jumping, a fence was built along its walkway in 1937. Nevertheless, with nearly 100 deaths having occurred there, the span's nickname as "suicide bridge" remains.

The bridge itself was nearly laid to rest several times; in 1935 and again in 1951 when the state proposed that it be demolished and replaced with wider, safer structures. In time, a new bridge, the 10-lane Pioneer connecting California 134 with the Foothill Freeway, was built to the north, but the old Colorado Street span was saved, thanks to appeals by preservation-conscious Pasadena.

In 1977 Caltrans again proposed to demolish the span. This time the city saved it by assuming its maintenance, a continuing problem now eased somewhat by 15-m.p.h. speed and five-ton load limits and resulting light traffic. What the bridge now seems best for is walking, bicycling and, on special occasions such as tonight, partying.

Not being a collection of islands, like New York or Venice, or lining the banks of a major river, as in London, Rome and Paris, Los Angeles does not have a surfeit of historic bridges. But there are, in addition to the Colorado Street span, a few interesting ones.

Particularly attractive despite continuing problems with graffiti are the spans east of downtown that cross the railroad tracks and the concrete channel of what once was a proud Los Angeles River. These include the Macy Street span, graced with columns in a faintly Spanish Renaissance look; the First Street decidely neo-classical span with its proud Roman arch; and the Fourth Street span hinting of Medieval styles. All were designed in the late 1920s when the city took pride in their structures.

More romantic is the so-called Shakespeare bridge, at the east end of Franklin Avenue spanning Myra Avenue on the edge of Franklin Hills and distinguished by Gothic-styled edifices.

More expressive of its function is the Vincent Thomas Bridge, connecting San Pedro to Terminal Island. Completed in 1963, it is the state's third-largest suspension bridge, topped only by the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco. And while I have never driven over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, I have appreciated its utility, and art form.

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