Tale of two bridges: One restored, one threatened

Arnold Berke

September 10, 1992|By Arnold Berke

THIS is a tale of two cities -- and of two bridges. One of these historic spans has been carefully renovated, but the other, a remarkably similar bridge located only 50 miles from the first, is gravely endangered. The outcome of this tale could affect not only the latter bridge but, by example, historic bridges and environments nationwide.

The first of these two bridges graces the Eastern Shore town of Chestertown, a community of considerable historical charm on the Chester River. The second serves as a scenic gateway to Annapolis, one of the nation's most historic cities. The attractive, low-scale Severn River Bridge -- used almost as much by pedestrians as by vehicles -- may soon give way to a much taller TC

and much more obtrusive structure. Perceived needs of safety and efficiency, the canons of highway planning, may triumph once again over history and compatibility.

This needn't happen. Annapolis residents and officials, led by the Citizens for the Scenic Severn River Bridge, have demonstrated that the bridge is a historic and aesthetic treasure, that its deterioration need not force its demolition, and that its replacement would harm views from Annapolis and damage a portal to this special city.

What is more, Maryland's highway department need only look to nearby Chestertown for a model of what should be done with such a bridge -- of, in fact, what that very department has done. There the Chester River Bridge -- a deteriorating drawbridge of very similar design, profile, and materials to the Annapolis span and constructed only a few years later -- also faced replacement by a high-rise, wider bridge. The community, however, organized early on to pressure highway officials for a better solution.

"We got the neighborhood involved to stand up for preservation, and it became a community preservation effort," says Marsha Fritz, a Chestertown architect who helped lead the preservation charge. As a result, the highway department agreed to renovate the bridge and worked with residents and officials to set the project's design.

The outcome fuses restoration with the re-creation and redesign of original elements. The structure has been brought back to life as a handsome and harmonious part of the landscape. It is sheer pleasure now to drive or walk across the bridge or to look at the span from town. The rebirth of the Chestertown bridge should serve as a national example -- at the very least a model for Annapolis.

It is also painful to see Annapolis struggle just when federal policy toward preserving our nation's transportation heritage is changing dramatically. States and communities are already taking advantage of "enhancement" funding provided under the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which will fund, as part of transportation projects, improvements to the historic and natural landscapes. Among these enhancements are the restoration of historic railroad stations and bridges. What better candidate for those funds than the Severn River Bridge?

We tend in our society not to profit from good examples, not to use them as the springboard to improvement. This seems especially true in the realm of transportation design. There the books and seminars are packed with fine ideas, and demonstration projects for decades have proven that exemplary construction and preservation can be carried out with great success.

Why do these concepts and demonstrations remain hothouse blooms? Why -- out on the road -- does it remain business as usual? Why does the ruling standard remain expediency? This should not continue. Examples like the Chester River Bridge renovation should set the tone for the future. They should not be the end but the beginning.

Arnold Berke is a Washington-based writer and executive editor of Historic Preservation News.

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