Reprint Of The Notes I Forgot To Bring With Me Yesterday On The 10 Bridges Ride

My  10-Bridgers river-side under the 6th Street Viaduct.

Since I’d left the house in a bit of an as-usual rush yesterday morning of course I forgot my notes for the 10 Bridges Ride (drawn from a variety of sources — the most reliable of which is the Creek Freak himself, Joe Linton whose book “Down By The Los Angeles River” should be on the shelf of every angeleno).

I winged it with the factoids as best I could, and near the end of the otherwise excellent excursion, rider Eric — who’d journeyed all the way from Santa Monica to participate — had the excellent suggestion that I post the notes online. And so here they are with my thanks for everyone who turned out and my hopes to see them and others on next Saturday’s Watts Happening Ride and others throughout the remaining Saturdays of May:

10 Bridges Ride Notes

The Man
Merrill Butler is widely acknowledged as the guiding force behind the design and construction of seven of the 10 bridges we’ll be crossing today, but little else is known about him. What I was able to discover was that Butler never attended college. Instead, he learned civil engineering via a correspondence course. Born in 1891 he was a city engineer for bridges and structures for 38 years, from 1923 to 1961. He died in 1963 and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

The Movement
The bridges  over the LA River that we’ll be crossing today were born out of the late 19th-century City Beautiful movement, when monumental public works were developed in order to uplift the character of urban residents. In 1924 LA voters approved a $2 million Viaduct Bond Act, which levied a tax to fund the city’s ambitious program to upgrade and modernize its bridges. Butler began in the beaux arts style, which dominated US public architecture of the period. You’ll see it in the more ornate 1926 Cesar Chavez Bridge and the 1925 Olympic Boulevard Bridge. His later bridges are slightly more streamlined and modern, but all reflect a consistency of purpose and vision.

Each bridge has features unique to it. You’ll see that every bridge has its own unique lighting standards that compliment the individual design. On some of the bridges we’ll be biking by seating and overlook areas, harkening back to an era when walking was the way a lot of people got around the city.

The Impact
Butler’s bridges not only allowed the city to grow but literally paved the way for the highway era. Ironically that era brought about relative obscurity both to his bridges and to him. But the simple truth is that he was never in it for any glory. Instead he considered being a civil servant a noble profession and was proud to work for the city. Merrill Butler servesas a shining example for all who strive to make our river and our city beautiful and his amazing bridges stand as monumental legacies.

The Bridges
North Broadway Bridge – Was originally known as the Buena Vista Viaduct (viaducts are so named because they span not only water but also railway tracks and/or roads). Completed in 1911, it is 968 feet long, rising 40 feet above the river and was designed by architect Alfred Rosenheim though it is generally credited to Homer Hamilin who served as Los Angeles civil engineer from 1906 to 1907.

North Spring Street Bridge – Begun in 1927 and completed in 1929 to relieve overcrowding on the North Broadway Bridge, it is 700 feet long and was designed by Major John C. Shaw, L.A.’s chief engineer from 1925-1930 — although Merrill Butler’s name also appears on the plaque on the north end of the bridge.

Main Street Bridge – Designed by H.G. Parker and Carl Leonardt, not only is this the shortest of the 10 bridges at 311 feet long (one foot shorter than the Washington Boulevard bridge) but it’s also the one that’s lost the most. Over its lifetime many of its architectural details have disappeared including a crisscross railing of artificial stone and frosted glass globes extending from decorated posts. It is also the only at-grade bridge remaining downtown.

Cesar E. Chavez Bridge – Originally called the Macy Street Bridge it was designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1926. Along its 1270-foot length its ornamentation is decidedly Spanish Revivial, featuring large porticos and spiral columns, abstracted seashells and a replica of the city seal. It is dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California Missions and is believed to be the vicinity in which The Pabladores — the city’s founding settlers — crossed the river on their way from the San Gabriel Mission to what became El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

First Street Bridge – At 1,300 feet long it was designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1929. It has been redesigned to accommodate the expansion of the Gold Line whose tracks now where the old Red and Yellow cars did until the early 1960s. The bridge bears a bronze plaque  with a dedication to the memory of Henry G. Parker, who was assistant city engineer in charge of bridge building. In 1909. At the age of 40, Parker drowned while supervising repairs to flood gates of the city’s outfall sewer near Redondo Beach.

Fourth Street Bridge -  The Goth Bridge was designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1931, at 1890 feet this bridge replaced the last remaining wooden bridge downtown with a 254-foot arch spanning the river. Butler incorporated gothic-style details in its ornate railing, lighting and columns.

Sixth Street Bridge – Set apart from the other downtown bridges by its use of two steel arches to span the river, this bridge, designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1932, was aligned to provide a smooth transition from Whitter Boulevard to East Sixt Street. At 3,546 feet in length it was the longest concrete bridge in the world in its day.

But the 6th Street bridge is falling apart. The sand quarried from the site 80 years ago to produce the concrete used turns out to have been toxic, triggering an alkali-silicon reaction that is slowly turning the bridge to jelly. The bridge remains safe for routine travel, but the city’s engineer corp gives it a 70% chance of failure in the event of the next major seismic event.

The Bureau of Engineering and its consultants have introduced five design alternatives, most of which attempt to replicate the current bridges signature arches. But none of them comes close to equating the current bridges singular drama.

Replacement of the bridge is estimated at $400 million dollars and in a recent op-ed column in the LA Times titled “Beauty and the Bridge.” Lewis MacAdams and Alex Ward urged the city to revisit the design and come up with one that doesn’t disregard the bridges important cultural and historical connections to the city. They wrote:

“No LA River bridge has more spectacular views of the downtown skyline than the 6th Street Bridge. None says “Los Angeles” more unmistakeably. No bridge in the city carries more symbolic weight either. There is no more direct route between Boyle Heights and the financial district than 6th Street, no bridge that better illustrates the physical proximity and the psychic distance between the working-class Eastside and the towers of the Figueroa Corridor. No bridge more accurately symbolizes the forces that bring us together and pull us apart.”

Seventh Street Bridge – At 1530 feet, the bridge as you see it today was designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1927. And from the side it looks as if it might have once been a double-decker. In actuality the 1927 bridge was built on top of an existing bridge completed in 1910 to carry trolley cars back and forth across the river.

Olympic Boulevard Bridge – Designed by Merrill Butler and completed in 1925 originally as the Ninth Street Bridge, it was renamed in 1932 in honor of the Olympic games held here that year. Originally trolleys ran along the middle of the bridges 1,420 foot length, supported by a special girder and a thicker deck.

Washington Boulevard Bridge – Completed in 1930 from a Merrill Butler design, at 312 feet it is the second shortest of the 10 bridges. It is significant for its polychrome terra cotta frieze panels on the columns which depict the art and science of bridge building.

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Here’s the route we took on Gmaps. And I only snapped a few other photos that can be found here on Flickr.