Make Mr. Highways smile

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Image of proposed new Henderson Bridge between Providence and East Providence. (RIDOT)

The late George Henderson, of Rumford, is the engineer who designed the Henderson Bridge across the Seekonk River, replacing upstream the old Red Bridge between Providence and East Providence. Known as “Mr. Highways,” he must have been a pretty popular guy, because the bridge, completed in 1969 as part of a never-built connector to Route 195, is of no distinction whatever. It looks like what it is – a highway overpass.

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Barrington/Warren Bridge.

Put some sort of an arch on the bridge, something recognizing Rhode Island’s status as a fount of lovely bridges, such as the Newport Bridge, the Mount Hope Bridge and, more recently, the two bridges taking Route 114 from Barrington to Warren. Those two bridges took eight years to build (quadruple what it took to build the Empire State Building in 1930), and went over budget, too, but the payback was in the elegant lamp posts, which gave them distinction.

A bridge arch or maybe a set of truly lovely bridge lamp posts would be sure to make George Henderson smile.

RIDOT held a public session on the bridge’s design yesterday at the Lincoln School, on Hope Street in Providence.* It was a start. The bridge lamps in the RIDOT working image atop this post have the sort of cheesy olde-timey lamp posts similar to those erected not long ago along the east end of Westminster Street in downtown. What a letdown they are! Westminster deserves better, and so would the Henderson, if beauty is to be the strategy by which the bridge’s distinction will be achieved.

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Henderson Bridge. (Providence Journal)

Assuming beauty is part of the strategy. But it cannot be assumed. Jersey barriers? Give us a break! Which is why Monday’s meeting at Lincoln was so important.

A more ambitious strategy would be to add an arch superstructure to the bridge, as recently suggested by the architect Michael Tyrrell, of Providence, who sits with me on the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Such an arch (along with three imposing pylons at each end) gives considerable distinction to the new IWAY bridge over the Providence from the Jewelry District to Fox Point. It should be considered for the Henderson Bridge.

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Red Bridge replaced by Henderson, 1969

Dodgy, to say the least, is the word for RIDOT’s planned three roundabouts in the plan for the new Henderson Bridge. In fact, the bridge, whose size has already been greatly narrowed and downsized, should be shifted away from its current long diagonal track across the Seekonk. That would shorten it, lower its cost, and incorporate its new and smaller approaches into the existing street grid on either side of the river. The result of such a shift would enable the two main streets that approach the narrowest part of the river to be connected by the span. Those streets are Waterman Street and Waterman Avenue, once connected by the old Red Bridge.

Such a shift would eliminate entirely the need for on-ramps, off-ramps and confusing roundabouts. It would open up more land on either side of the river for development. It would probably decrease the cost in time and money to build the project, enabling RIDOT to add a much nicer archway, better lamp pots, pleasing pylons, or some combination of these (or maybe something else) to turn the bridge into a span worth driving, biking or walking over, not to mention looking at, and commensurate with the charming new communities that could spring up on either side.

Think big, RIDOT! Think smart! Even Mr. Highways would agree.

***

[*This post originally reported an upcoming meeting about the Henderson Bridge design at the Lincoln School on Monday. The meeting took place this past Monday, the day before this post was written, based on a Providence Journal report published on the day of the meeting and announcing the day (Monday) but not the date of the meeting. My apologies for absent diligence in not double-checking the Journal’s reporting, and I hope nobody was inconvenienced.]

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Providence River/I-195 Bridge should be named for the late Bill Warner. (Flickr)

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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6 Responses to Make Mr. Highways smile

  1. Jon Ford says:

    We (the Seekonk Riverbank Revitalization Alliance) investigated the Waterman to Waterman connection over the last few years, including basic engineering and urban design concepts to determine feasibility. It is indeed feasible (even with the constraint of the land given away at the old PVD abutment site now being a building) and would solve a lot of problems. We pushed the idea forward over the last few months, and it regardless of logic it was deemed to be a non-starter with RIDOT (we tried) given their funding pressures.

    Like

    • Thank you, Jon. Of course there is a valid reason for the hurry. Without haste, the credit for a project might come only after the head of department, chief engineer, or whatever, is gone. Then all those millions spent for nothing!

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  2. It would be great to reconnect Waterman to Waterman, but the RI DOT or the City of Providence sold off the property long ago, and the office building next to the Waterman Grille occupies the space. Buying it out will add another chunk of money to the cost of the bridge, along with plenty of possibilities for shenanigans. I suspect the extra cost will be offset by the reduced cost of the shorter bridge, though. OTOH, the freeing up of the former bridge land will offer more chances for Senator Rubbers to impose scaleless monstrosities on Providence.

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    • All interesting points, Peter. I threw out a number of ideas (mine and others’) to see if anything sticks. I take credit for the Waterman-to-Waterman idea, which may not be feasible, but if someone can find a way around objections …

      By the way, dear readers, I hope nobody will go to Monday’s meeting I noted in the original version of this post, in which I misconstrued which Monday was meant by the Journal, which published its article on the day of the meeting, describing it as “on Monday” rather than “today.” So I wrongly assumed the story meant the next Monday. I’d had a surgical procedure on Monday and was still groggy. Not an excuse, just an explanation, however insufficient.

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  3. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Ahh, kudos, David! Let’s hope for an optimal
    design outcome. That area is a diamond in the rough. A new landmark bridge would draw increased investment to that underutilized -and underrated- waterfront!..

    Like

    • Thanks, Michael. Keep on plugging away at this. I also believe there is room for us to weigh in, if only with a letter to the editor of the Journal (not by me; maybe or maybe not written by me but signed or written or both by someone on our board. That’s not a done deal yet, not by a long shot.

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