THREATENED: Historic Chicago Avenue Bridge Targeted for Demolition

Chicago Avenue Bridge, Photo Credit: James Phillips

Chicago Avenue Bridge Detail, Photo Credit: @ChEyeBall from Twitter

Built in 1914 by the Ketler-Elliot Erection Company of Chicago, the historic Chicago Avenue Bridge is scheduled for demolition and replacement with a new non-movable, concrete bridge. As part of this process as the historic Chicago Avenue Bridge was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the City and the Chicago Department of Transportation are required by law to offer to give away the bridge to anyone interested in taking it. The underlying law was intended to protect valuable historic assets, but the offer rings hollow with the City of Chicago’s clear lack of genuine interest in seeing this iconic bridge protected, saved or reused.

The Chicago Avenue Bridge is a pony truss bascule bridge with an elegant symmetric span of riveted steel beams which taper towards the center. The exposed riveted steel references a heroic industrial age when Chicago was a manufacturing powerhouse, a leader in steel production, and a world-leading bridge design innovator. The bridge was operated from an elegant bridgehouse with a pitched roof, rounded corners, a ribbon of windows, and clad in a decorative copper, now oxidized green like the Statue of Liberty. In a past era when industrial traffic on the north branch was heavy, the bridge opened and closed frequently, but today that need no longer exists.

“Chicago has more movable bridges than any other city in the world, and the city is recognized as an international innovator in the engineering of bridges.” (Maggio, GapersBlock.com, 12/2/04)

According to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, there are 52 movable bridges in the city limits of Chicago. “The first trunnion bascule bridge in the country opened in 1902 over the north branch of the Chicago River at Cortland Street. Translated from French, “trunnion” means “pivot point” and “bascule” means “seesaw.” Also known as the “Chicago Style,” the bridge’s leaves are suspended on axles (trunnions), with massive concrete counterweights located below the bridge, in the riverbank pit. There are single-leaf bascule bridges, which were constructed where the river was not very wide and often used for trains, and double-leaf bascule bridges, which could be compared to two seesaws across from each other.” (Chicago’s movable bridges, CAF.org)

The Chicago Avenue Bridge is a historic asset immediately adjacent to the Chicago Landmark Montgomery Ward Complex started in 1909 and designed by distinguished architectural firm of Schmidt, Garden, and Martin. Overlooking the bridge and river is the 22.5 foot bronze statue that originally topped the former Montgomery Ward Building on Michigan Avenue. Across the river, there are plans to redevelop the Chicago Tribune printing facility into a new residential community, to be called “the River District” which would be marketed as an innovation and tech district. This massive project on the current 37-acre site of the Chicago Tribune Printing plant calls for more than a dozen new buildings spanning more than 9 million square feet and 5,900 new homes along the north branch of the Chicago River, including an extended Riverwalk.

The elegant, human-scaled historic Chicago Avenue Bridge would be a visual benefit to these new residents, unlike the living adjacent to a highway scale, visual eyesore, highway-style bridge. It is even more ironic that at a time when the City of Chicago has invested heavily in creating and expanding river access through an increasing network of riverwalks, that an iconic river focal point will be demolished.

Tourism and the Film industry in Chicago are major economic drivers in Chicago. In 2017, over 55 million tourists visited Chicago which contributes to the Chicago economy with billions of dollars in direct spending, million dollars of tax revenue, and support hundreds of thousands of Chicago job. ( www.ChooseChicago.com)

From their perspective regarding Chicago’s international appeal as a tourism destination, The Financial Times called Chicago “perhaps the most architecturally aware city on earth” and the city’s Riverwalk “complex, urbane and intriguing;” (Noel, Chicago Tribune, 1/13/18)

Highly iconic bridges such as the Chicago Avenue Bridge are a value to tourism and the film industry and these economic factors should be included in the economic calculations when engineers study existing assets like historic bridges.

By replacing the Chicago Avenue Bridge with a non-descript, highway interchange style, non-movable bridge to save money, the project engineers are effectively cutting off the North Branch from ever being able to accommodate large or tall ships. This is shortsighted given the enormous investment likely to occur along the North Branch in the coming years. The City of Chicago should insist that new bridge be operable.

Additionally, the Chicago Avenue Bridge serves to slow traffic and prevent heavier traffic build up and gridlock on the pedestrian intensive streets east of the river on Chicago Avenue. At a time when city planners are attempting to make Chicago’s streets narrower to increase safety for pedestrians and bicycles, widening the Chicago Avenue Bridge is poor planning. Lastly, any widening of the bridge will directly and negatively impact the historic landmark buildings immediately east of the river including the restaurant Japonais and anchor tenants in the Montgomery Ward building such as Groupon.

Preservation Chicago calls on the City of Chicago to invest in renovating the existing Chicago Avenue Bridge. By avoiding the new construction, the savings could then be spent on renovating many of the historic bridges across the Chicago River that have been in need of repair from decades of deferred maintenance.

In the model of Montgomery Ward & Co. which was both a major Chicago corporation and benefactor for Chicago, we suggest that large, important current Chicago based corporations adopt nearby historic elements to assist with underwriting the cost of restoration and to encourage the City of Chicago to more responsibly maintain its historic assets.

While a number of historic rail bridges spanning the Chicago River are Designated Chicago Landmarks, Chicago’s Bascule Bridges have no protections against demolition. It is essential that these important icons of Chicago be recognized and protected by a Chicago Landmark Designation of bridges along the main channel of the Chicago River and North and South branches.

If we’re not able to maintain this bridge in place, Preservation Chicago supports the idea of reusing the Chicago Avenue Bridge and any other historic Chicago bridges targeted for replacement as pedestrian bridges along the riverfront development in the North Branch Corridor District or as an extension of the 606 elevated trail to allow it to span the Chicago River to neighborhoods to the east. By moving the Chicago Avenue Bridge three blocks to the south would allow the planned “the River District” direct and easy pedestrian and bike access to Montgomery Ward Park at Erie Street and the river and thriving restaurant district in River North. Considering the ten years that have passed since the Chicago Avenue Bridge was first targeted for demolition, it makes sense to wait a little while longer until the “the River District” plans advance and more is known about how this iconic bridge might make that project even more successful.

Additional Reading

Public Notice: Chicago Avenue Bascule Bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River, City of Chicago, 6/5/18

Chicago offers up historic Chicago Avenue bridge for free, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/25/18 

The city is trying to give away the Chicago Avenue Bridge, Zach Long, TimeOut Chicago, 6/18/18

If You Believe in Chicago, Rahm Has a Bridge to Sell You — No, Really, ChicagoArchitecture.org, 6/20/18

City Offers Chicago Avenue Bridge Free to Good Home, Steven Dahlman, Loop North News, 6/18/18

Chicago: The Movable Bridge Capital of the World, By Alice Maggio, GapersBlock, 12/2/04

Chicago’s movable bridges, Nikki Snodgrass and Jessica Cilella, Chicago Architecture Foundation

Tribune Printing Plant Site May Be Redeveloped Into Riverside Neighborhood, David Matthews, DNAinfo Chicago, 10/4/17

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