Hope for Henderson Bridge?

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Henderson Bridge (1969) spans Seekonk River. (film.ri.gov)

Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation plans to use extra federal transportation funds to replace the stodgy old Henderson Bridge – a span that not only looks like a highway overpass but is a highway overpass. It was originally built in 1969 to carry Route 44 over the Seekonk River, but the rest of the highway was never built, at least not there.

Watch out! You can still see the dead end as you climb the final exit ramp.

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Henderson Bridge (Wikipedia)

The Ocean State has a tradition of building elegant bridges that are a pleasure to cross. Newport Bridge. Mount Hope Bridge. Washington Bridge.  In relinking Providence’s East Side to East Providence, the state can not only build a bridge that will make us feel proud but a new waterfront community on land freed by removing the Henderson’s network of on and off ramps.

This could be East Providence’s answer to the capital city’s innovation corridor, but instead of planting a new dead zone as the state has done in the Jewelry District, East Providence can plant a lively, lovely mixed-use district along the banks of the Seekonk.

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Red Bridge, built in 1895. (sos.ri.gov)

Unfortunately, RIDOT seems intent upon ramming the process through, as if the dollars from Washington will suddenly vanish if the state asks the public for input on what to do, which is not in the plan. What RIDOT appears to have in store for East Providence is the type of missed opportunity suffered by Olneyville, one of Providence’s poorest neighborhoods, when the state shoved aside an enchanting boulevard proposal for the 6/10 connector and substituted a build-in-place plan to reconstruct the bummer boulevard we already have heading in and out of downtown from the west.

The plan for the Henderson Bridge – called the Red Bridge by many, after the 1895 swing bridge that preceded it – looks to be to plop another highway overpass atop of the tall existing bridge pylons instead of straightening out its slantwise course over the Seekonk’s narrow passage to link Waterman Street in Providence with Waterman Avenue in East Providence.

What a natural!

The plan already calls for slicing off the unused highway bulk of the bridge to create a much narrower span – possibly a pair of lanes, one in either direction. Good. But even better would be to remove the existing stilts and lower the bridge deck to a more pedestrian-friendly height, with landings on the banks of the river itself. It should be similar, in urban concept, to the 1990-1996 replacement of the Crawford Street Bridge (once noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as, at 1,147 feet, the world’s widest) with the beautiful set of low, arched bridges that cross the Providence River between downtown and College Hill.

Alas, it appears that the bold and thoughtful RIDOT of 1980 to 2010, which saw not only the River Relocation Project but the I-195 Highway Relocation Project, no longer exists. RIDOT piggybacked aesthetic improvements with local tradition in mind on the back of what would otherwise have been a plain vanilla transportation infrastructure project. Life in Providence was improved for all. Then RIDOT led the way to kick Route 195 from between downtown and the Jewelry District; the fact that the state, starting in 2011, has misunderstood the point of reknitting those two historic parts of the city back together does not impugn the genius of moving the highway. (Both the river- and highway-relocation projects were conceived and led, in their design and accomplishment, by the late architect and planner Bill Warner. He must be rolling in his grave at what has been done in the I-195 corridor.)

RIDOT seems to be running a race to continue missing opportunities in Rhode Island. But the Henderson Bridge replacement process has only just begun. Here’s hoping to slow it down to a more thoughtful pace.

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Henderson Bridge (top), showing eastern ramp acreage; Washington Bridge below. (Google)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Hope for Henderson Bridge?

  1. John Gallagher says:

    The relocation of 195 was supposed to join the south side with downtown; instead, more amputation was performed with removing the Pine Street bridge. Why couldn’t Friendship Street west be linked with Friendship Street east? Westminster Street for that matter also. DOT had the opportunity to join the 2 Magnolia streets in Olneyville, which was amputated when the first route 6 connector was built, but noooooooooo. Fewer streets connected means more congestion in Olneyville. Given this pattern, I think the DOT will muck up on the Seekonk River opportunity as well

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  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Lesley Maxwell, I don’t know for certain, but it appears forces at RIDOT are moving much too quickly. Given more time and due diligence, local planners would have more influence. They/we know this bridge replacement could inaugurate a whole new destination for Central and Greater Providence much the way the Providence River relocation has. If I were Senator Jack Reed (who landed the funding) I’d be on the horn with the Governor demanding a more considerate, pro-urban outcome.

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  3. Lesley Maxwell says:

    I’ve been on that bridge twice. The 2nd time was a few weeks ago and I thought, “Oh, no. Not again. The Bridge to Nowhere.” I never knew that it was, at one time, it was the infamous ”Red Bridge”. Is this bridge really serving any purpose? I never heard of the Henderson Expressway or those islands. This state has so many waterways that we can’t see or take advantage of. It was only recently that, looking at an old map, I learned that Providence was almost all water with a huge pond in the middle. All the beauty is hidden by cement. There’s not a tree to be found nor a bench to sit on to enjoy the view.
    Mr. Tyrell – From what I’ve read, seen and experienced, the people in charge will never listen, will never look at what could be and will never allow an honest, open public process.

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  4. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Well said David! The opportunity here is tremendous and should not be squandered. Why do Rhode Island state leaders want to risk losing another rare opening?!?…, Losing the PawSox to Massachusetts, and embracing an inappropriately sited, spot-zoned skyscraper is bad enough! Governor Raimondo and RIDOT should take account of the voices and vision of its outstanding design and planning community. Where is the public process?

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