Building bridges, consensus


International group honors Columbia architect who built divisive Ohio overpass

June 27, 2008|By JANENE HOLABERG

No public monument defines a city any better than a distinctive bridge. Think of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Then there are bridges that go largely unnoticed because they're just not visually memorable, such as the Key Bridge, which serves without fanfare to move Beltway traffic 1,200 feet across the Baltimore Harbor.

When a beloved bridge comes up for replacement, local residents experience a fierce sense of ownership based on their collective memories, said Frederick Gottemoeller of Columbia.

Residents often become embroiled in a contentious design process because they don't want to see a utilitarian span take the place of a more meaningful piece of architecture, he said.

When an issue heats up, Gottemoeller steps in to cool things down. A bridge architect with 42 years' experience, he was recently recognized by the International Bridge Conference for his work on the High-Main Street Bridge in southwestern Ohio.

"It was a bit of a surprise," said the 41-year Howard County resident about earning the Eugene C. Figg Jr. Medal for Signature Bridges. He was lauded for his work in designing a new bridge to replace one installed in 1914 in the city of Hamilton.

Gottemoeller, president of Bridgescape LLC in Columbia, served as a consultant on the project to Burgess and Niple, a national engineering firm with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

"I thought we should enter our project into the competition," he said of the annual contest that draws entries worldwide. "But we didn't expect to win."

The architect worked closely with Hamilton residents, who had strong opinions about replacing a historic bridge that was an integral part of the city's landscape. Some residents formed a Save the Bridge committee, though the cherished overpass was falling, chunk by chunk, into the Great Miami River.

"We bring Fred in when we have a project with high visibility and heavy public involvement because he really shines in that arena," said John Shanks, director of structural engineers with Burgess and Niple. "He is able to hear divergent opinions, go back to the drawing table and blend them to reach a consensus."

Gottemoeller credits his success to experience and patience.

"I have enough confidence to be successful," he said. "I actually find the process kind of fun. When I'm asked how high a bridge will be, I respond, 'How high do you want it to be?' I help groups get over their animosity and coalesce around a positive solution."

The final solution in Hamilton led to construction of a 560-foot, five-span concrete arch bridge that "translated the aspirations of the community into ideas that could be built," the architect said.

"The best bridges mix science with aesthetics," he said.

As the architect of the recently completed Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River - a 12-lane replacement project that was highly an issue within its communities - he employed similar techniques, he said.

"That bridge connects Alexandria, Va., to Prince George's County, Md. - two somewhat disparate communities with different viewpoints," he said.

Residents settled on a raised bridge with two-thirds of its openings able to accommodate the passage of recreational vessels, but kept a drawbridge that opens during restricted hours.

"I got a lot of satisfaction out of defusing that tension," he said.

"Fred's background as a professional engineer and as an architect is a combination that's difficult to find," Shanks said. "He not only draws the cool stuff, he is able to manipulate those forms because he understands how the structure works."

The new bridge in Hamilton recalls the appearance of the former structure while adding 12-foot sidewalks, overlooks and architectural lighting.

Nine bronze medallions depicting the city's history with the river are incorporated into the bridge's decorative metal railing.

The bridge "has elegant lines that reflect a good combination of engineering and architecture," said Tom Leech, a member of the International Bridge Conference executive board. He is a vice president at Gannett Fleming Inc., an international engineering consulting firm anchored in Harrisburg, Pa.

The winning entry was judged to be "an icon to the community for which it was designed," Leech said.

The conference is marking its 25th anniversary this year, he added, noting that 1,600 people representing 48 states and 20 countries attended the annual meeting June 2 to 4 in Pittsburgh. The other three bridges honored at this year's awards are products of West Virginia, Germany and China.

"Fred's design was consistent with the quality of past winners," Leech said. "While form follows function, aesthetics is a large component of his work. Fred's stamp is on a lot of things in our state."

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