Bridging the gap to downtown Span: Residents eagerly await the reconstruction of an ornate bridge that once gave them easy downtown access.

September 30, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Street bridge, a trio of elegant concrete arches spanning the Gwynns Falls, has been closed for major repairs since May, making life more difficult for the folks who live on either side of it.

The 67-year-old bridge, a Depression-era product of the Civil Works and Works Progress Administrations, was in such bad shape before it closed -- numerous holes and cracks pitted the heavily patched roadway -- that the Mass Transit Administration stopped running the No. 20 bus across it for fear that the span might buckle.

But at least until Thanksgiving 1999, when the nearly $3.5 million federal project is scheduled to be finished by Allied Contractors Inc., Chris Brown will continue to ignore "road closed" signs to walk over the bridge to get to and from downtown.

"The bridge had holes in it," said Brown this week as he crossed the partially demolished span en route to his mother's house on North Bernice Avenue. "It needed to be fixed bad."

Brown said that there's good-sized catfish to be caught in the gurgling falls beneath the bridge. He said that he and his friends often hiked and swam under the bridge when they were growing up between the Mount Olivet and Western cemeteries in a neighborhood known as "the Valley."

"You'd walk across it to hang out with friends who lived on the other side or go to the Westside Shopping Center," said his sister, Sandra Brown. "Now you've got to go all the way around" on a winding detour that includes Franklintown Road, Frederick Avenue, Hilton Street and Edmondson Avenue.

It's an inconvenience that gives residents a taste of what people had to go through in the years before the 491-foot bridge was built for $119,000; when Baltimore was growing enough to annex land from Baltimore County.

"We need it," said Barbara Cole, who lives on Mount Olivet Lane. "We can't go straight downtown anymore to get to University [of Maryland Medical Center] or the Inner Harbor."

Before the Baltimore Street bridge was built, children walked through the stream or over a nearby railroad bridge to reach the old Gwynns Falls Junior High School. Less adventurous children and grown-ups opted for the long way around a steeply sloping, wooded terrain.

(Today, when workers turn back youths who try and cross the bridge, they often pop up on the adjacent Amtrak railroad trestle. One man appeared recently on the bridge at 8 a.m. with a beer in his hand and, looking over a foreman's shoulder at blueprints, asked whether they were hiring.)

In 1930, Baltimore Mayor William F. Broening, in whose administration the bridge was conceived, told the public: "With the great development in row houses that is going on in the Edmondson Avenue section, the need for an additional artery becomes more and more apparent."

The bridge was built during the administration of Mayor Howard W. Jackson. By 1992, it had become apparent that patch-up jobs and weight restrictions no longer would ensure its safety.

Baltimore hired the Charles Street engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff to design the restoration (only the deck and parapets on the bridge are being replaced) and Allied Contractors to do the work.

Because the two-lane bridge with sidewalks is of historic value -- it represents the economic growth of Baltimore, and its design reflects the period in which it was built -- the state historic preservation office insisted that the bridge's original aesthetics be maintained.

(A 16-inch sewer line that runs under the bridge will be replaced with an 18-inch line. Once the bridge is repaired, it will support loads up to 45 tons, up from its former maximum weight of 25 tons.)

"It's an extremely unusual bridge; there's nothing standard about it except that its typical for its time," said John Wisniewski, a Parsons Brinckerhoff engineer who wrote about the project for a professional journal. "An arched bridge is technically challenging and we're trying to duplicate its features. You can see the bridge from Gwynns Falls Park and [the preservationists] didn't want to change the characteristics."

Added Wisniewski: "It has lines that give it character and depth that you don't see every day. Bridges during that period are very ornate. Back then, material was expensive, and labor was cheap. Today, labor is expensive, and material is cheap."

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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