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PERSPECTIVE

Through a forgotten bridge engineer, a vision of Los Angeles

Henry G. Parker's bridges were meant to inspire. A century after his death in a sewer sluiceway, the misty remnants of his creations are still eloquent.

August 07, 2013|By Thomas Curwen

Like an L.A. noir, this mystery begins with a mystery. I'm standing under the midday, midsummer sun. To the west, the skyscrapers of downtown rise like the steep palisades of a nearby island. The sky is cataract blue.

I've parked next to a Buddhist temple and The One-Eye Gypsy bar and am walking east across the 1st Street bridge. Some people call it a viaduct, but it's a bridge to me, built in 1928 according to the commemorative plaque.

Towers, like miniature Arc de Triomphes, rise from the bridge's abutments. I pass a pile of bedding and can't be sure if anyone is asleep beneath the blue blanket. The Gold Line breezes toward East L.A., and a stranger asks me to take his picture. Below us, the river sparkles in the afternoon breeze.

At the abutment above the east bank, I gaze up at the face of a young man. His wavy hair, strong jaw line and heroic mien remind me of young Leonardo DiCaprio. Below his silhouette on this slightly marred brass tablet is his name, Henry G. Parker.

According to the inscribed legend, Parker was a bridge engineer for the city. His five-year tenure ended in 1909. "He lost his life," it says, "in the performance of his duty."

A Union Pacific train's blast startles me. I turn around and see a similar plaque across the street. Los Angeles is said by some to be a city whose history is most remarkable for what is erased and forgotten, and in this No-Stopping zone, it's easy to overlook Henry Parker.

I'm not surprised. Los Angeles is after all a palimpsest, a manuscript worked and reworked over the decades, leaving only hints of the original language and intent. The present weighs too much upon us, and Parker's achievement — enough to have a bridge dedicated to him — is as enigmatic as his death.

When I returned to my car, it smelled of the afternoon's meatloaf sandwich. I was determined to learn more about this latter-day Roebling. A news story in the Times provided the details: His death was as ignominious as his ambitions were grand.

On the first Friday in August, 1909, Parker and a colleague traveled across town to Redondo Beach to repair a floodgate to the city's fledgling sewer system. Such a disagreeable task was not without risk, and as the two men raised and lowered the gate, Parker was overcome by the fumes and fell 20 feet down the manhole into the sluiceway. His body was recovered in the ocean by Japanese fishermen.

The death of such a young man — he was 40, married, two small children — cast a shadow upon the city. The following Monday, the Board of Public Works closed its offices for a half day, and the Times published a tribute to the man who "pursued his work with fidelity and seldom spent time discussing anything but results."

The paper called him "the guiding genius" of the bridges at 7th and North Main streets. It credited him for the design of the Broadway Street bridge, and it lavished particular attention on the engineering that now supports Cesar E. Chavez Avenue over the I-10.

So I decided to drive from 7th Street through Chinatown in search of Parker's lost masterpieces. It wasn't easy.

Abandoned warehouses, tawdry billboards, private easements and fences topped by concertina wire obscure his work. Time too has taken its toll. His bridge at 7th became the foundation for another bridge built in 1927, and his bridge at Main Street, stripped of all its decorative flourishes, is in the midst of what seems to be a stalled and messy repair.

It didn't matter that Parker had no Seine, no Hudson to traverse. In fact, riding in a wagon or a carriage, he would have found in lieu of a river a sandy channel, a dumping ground for garbage, home for squatters and a source for gravel that would bind the concrete of the city.

But he would have been aware of Los Angeles' aspirations. In 1908, construction had begun on the most impossible of enterprises: an aqueduct designed to carry water 200 miles to these arid plains.

Utopians also proposed how the city might avoid the poverty and crowding of its neighbors to the east. They called for parks, promenades, more trees, less fencing, even a nightly dusting of street lamps, and as I wandered among Parker's bridges, covered with graffiti, overshadowed by power lines and beaten down by the heavy weight of cars and trucks, I began to see his dream for this city as well.

Consider his bridge over the I-10. Its steep grade required each arch to be a different height, a Euclidean dilemma that according to the Times, "occupied his study for many weeks." Decorative elements include light standards patterned with fleur-de-lis and S-shaped dragons supporting the cantilevered glass orbs.

The Broadway bridge features fluted columns, octagonal balusters and 12 viewing balconies extending from the sidewalk. Some say these were built to accommodate residents who might want to greet guests arriving to the city by train.

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