Stick by our “stuck bridge”

Bascule Bridge as seen from third floor of Wingate assisted living. (photo by author)

As usual, city authorities, including Mayor Elorza, are trying to find new ways of screwing up Providence by throwing non-existent money at it. In this case, they want to take a perfectly good old 1908 bridge, stuck engagingly in the up position for half a century, and turn it from a local icon into bad art.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which owns the Crook Point Bascule rail bridge, has set aside $6 million to tear it down. But lots of people like the bridge as a landmark that seems to wander around as you drive or walk near India Point and the eastern edge of Fox Point. It is a bit of history, a relic of the era when 300 trains a year passed through the city, sending manufactured goods to market after their production here in exchange for materials to make more such high-value goods. Those were the days when Providence saw itself as sitting on top of the world. Its civic leaders enjoyed a map of the eastern seaboard with “trade arrows” pointing to markets throughout the world. They chuckled at piker cities with the gumption to pretend to be our rivals, powerhouse-wannabe cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The bridge might not bring all that to mind for most who see it, especially those ignorant of Providence’s past glories. But its monumental stuck-uppedness – sign of an oops that we can attribute to the past – demands attention.

According to the Providence Journal, GoLocalProv.com and other news outlets, Horsley Witten Group & Jonathan Harris, an engineering firm headquartered in Sandwich, Mass., has won a design contest held by Elorza for ideas on what to do with the bridge. As described in planning-speak (which the Journal reporter has done a fine job of emulating), the Horsley plan:

[r]epurposes the iconic landmark and its surrounding area, preserving a piece of the City’s historic infrastructure while reinvesting in an inviting new public space.

In short, destroy the village (oops, the bridge) in order to save it.

The city, says the firm, should take what makes the bridge appealing – its olden rusty form sticking notably upward – and cover it up with bad art glowing with LED lights. That way, nobody will care about it anymore, except for teenage boys (of all ages) who will enjoy throwing rocks and stones at it in order to knock out its illumination. The designers suggest future sites for affordable housing nearby, perhaps in order to provide a steady stream of unruly teenagers (just kidding!). With new art replacing the old railroad ties, suddenly the bridge will become worthy of demolition. But nobody will be eager to pay $6 million to replace a railroad monument (tarted up or left alone) with nothing.

What should be done is what sensible people would do who recognize that post-pandemic Providence has far better ways to spend its own or federal taxpayers’ money. The rust and the upward tilt of the bridge should remain. The graffiti should be zapped off. A barrier to prevent people from climbing the erect part of the bridge (occasionally to jump off) should be built. A historical plaque should be installed to explain the bridge as part of the city’s robust manufacturing and infrastructure history. When such a project is done, nobody who visits it would recognize that it has been renovated. It should look much as it looks now. Or, if this is somehow unpalatable or too costly, it should be left alone.

A pedestrian and bicycle path now leads from India Point Park (which would be plenty of park for most neighborhoods) along the edge of the Seekonk River, past Blackstone Park and onto Blackstone Boulevard. Let these users who would approach closest to the bridge enjoy it as it is.

My mother-in-law is lucky enough to have the Bascule Bridge as the centerpiece of her third-floor view from the Wingate senior assisted-living center next to the old IGA. (You’ll never guess what that stands for!) I would pen these words of warning even if her dear self did not live there, and even if I did not enjoy the prospect from that height. In fact, this is my second post on the subject. A monument that is largely free and always very interesting should be left alone to connect the city’s past to the city’s future without molestation from civic leaders who cannot think of anything better to do with our tax dollars. Enough!

Engraving from 1911 edition of Providence Magazine. (author archives)

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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14 Responses to Stick by our “stuck bridge”

  1. Jonathan Harris says:

    “The designers suggest future sites for affordable housing nearby, perhaps in order to provide a steady stream of unruly teenagers (just kidding!).”
    Don’t like low-income people much – BIGOT
    TIme for CANCEL CULTURE
    Old white guy much?
    I will bring this to the attention of the PROJO

    Like

  2. Jonathan Harris says:

    David, I assume you did not talk to anyone on the winning team?! I know you didn’t call me. Excellent reporting!
    What we propose is not “gaudy,” nor does it disrespect the historic structure. A large part of what we are trying to do is to save the structure. What you gloss over in your “well researched” opinion, is that the bridge is slated for demolition, and something must be done to save it, to preserve that history you wax so eloquently about. Your suggestion to restrict access has been tried many many times, with the barrier broken each time. Is it best to put up a wall? To block off the views to block off access?! No!!
    Our proposal takes a derelict icon and updates it. I know you don’t like anything new – hell, you’re still living with an IGA, but it’s time to move on. The lighting, only a small part of the proposal, will be done to highlight the bridge and allow people to interact in a safe way. The light bars will not always be used and can be programmed for different events or by different artists. It will allow for interaction from the deck, now separated from the bridge to restrict access, and will allow for people to experience the bridge and river in new ways. The rehabbed deck will allow fishing and other activities and will permit people to experience the river in new ways.
    Too much park? Really?!
    I know that this comment will not change your opinion. You have become too stuck in your ways, just like the bridge. Perhaps we should just leave you and your curmudgeonly ways and separate you from others with a big barrier that says “Stay Away!”

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    • Ha ha, Jonathan! I am retired and do this for fun and so I am always on the lookout to shoot a fish in a barrel for a change. But LED lights not gaudy!? (Did I even say “gaudy”?) I did not gloss over demolition – it was central to the point, which is you actually need not do anything to save the bridge. Against anything new? What about the plaques I suggested in case the desire to “do something” was too strong to resist? Hey, Jonathan, you have to do your research, too. In this case it’s not hard: it’s called reading the article you are criticizing.

      Like

  3. barry schiller says:

    there is some legit concern that the status quo could be dangerous as some always seem to sneak around barriers, but I basically agree leave it alone is better than the gaudy idea floated. Its also better than spending $6 million to remove it and wind up with nothing. But even better might be to see if the bridge can be lowered, paved, railings installed so it is a bike/pedestrian connection that is at least useful and might help redevelop the rather sad East Providence waterfront. As that is a transportation use, 80% of the cost could be paid by the Federal government

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    • Connecting Providence and East Providence makes sense, Barry, but is already part of the proposed new Henderson Bridge, I think, and such a pedestrian bridge and bikeway has recently been built as part of the I-195 Washington Bridge, very elegantly done. There is no need for a third. My vote’s still with do nothing, or a minimal sanitization with plaques. Why risk adding to the abomination already proposed?

      Like

    • Jonathan Harris says:

      The problem with a connection is the active shipping channel below. Any connection would have to allow for ships. A lowered bridge would also need to be raised. Adding a connection would either need to be above the shopping channel or allow for an opening movement. Both would cost orders of magnitude over the winning proposal.
      Perhaps, if popular enough in the future, a water taxi could provide the connection.

      Like

  4. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    Since we have all this money sloshing around, why not fix the College and Crawford street bridges? 5 years ago, I guessed they had 10 years left before the piers collapsed. They’re pretty much on schedule. I won’t even start on the Arup proposal to destroy Bill Warner’s masterpiece.

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    • Yes, Peter, don’t get me going on that either. I don’t know how much money is really sloshing around. Any dollars that come from the feds should be used to liquidate some of the pension and health benefit debt owed by the state to its employees. There are a thousand and one things to spend what money there is better than on tarting up a nonworking bridge – perhaps including Barry’s idea above.

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  5. John the First says:

    Mr. Brussat is a smart politician, aesthetic arguments are delicate and troublesome in these times, arguments of sentiment (preserving history), and economic arguments (wasted tax money) are much more powerful. I also like the argument that desolate modernist aesthetics (LED light, etc) attracts unruly youth, and what more. Can’t blame the youth though.

    Like

  6. Steve says:

    ✔️ – How about the $6M being used to create a real ferry terminal at India Point from the old Shooters building that is comparable to the one in Newport; instead of that temporary embarrassment that’s their now.

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  7. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    I agree with you totally, just leave it alone protect it and explain it, it’s part of our past and should be excepted and not used as a lighting prop

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    • Yes, Stan. And they could illustrate the plaque with old photos and maps, as was done so effectively during the River Relocation Project that, under Bill Warner, gave us our wonderful new waterfront.

      Like

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