Road to tomorrow

Officials and preservationists team up to make historic bridge safe for generations to come

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 6/20/2013

Before the historic Colorado Street Bridge was built over the Arroyo Seco shortly after the turn of the last century, crossing the deep canyon that the seasonal river bisected was an extremely difficult task.  
“Horses and wagons had to descend the steep eastern slope, cross the stream over a smaller bridge, and then climb up the west bank through Eagle Rock Pass,” writes Frank Wilkins with the Dallas-Forth Worth Film Critics Association, who pens stories about the Hollywood movie industry and other Los Angeles County points of interest.
First designed by John Alexander Low Waddell of the firm Waddell & Harrington and built by the Mercereau Bridge and Construction Co. in 1913, the 149-foot high, 1,468-foot-long structure faced an epic battle for survival following 1989’s magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake in Northern California. 
The bridge was closed for more than three years following the quake, after engineers warned Pasadena officials the structure could collapse if Southern California experienced an earthquake of the same magnitude. 
A $27.4-million reconstruction project was soon launched and the Colorado Street Bridge (given its moniker before the street was renamed Colorado Boulevard) reopened to great fanfare in 1993.
“Back then, it got a lot of attention and time,” said Cynthia Kurtz, formerly Pasadena’s city manager, and before that public works director. “We had to go through a lot as a city to justify why the bridge should be repaired instead of replaced, because it was expensive. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money today, but it was back then.”
Most of the money came from Federal Highway Bridge Repair and Replacement Act funds, with Los Angeles County and the city of Pasadena forking over the remaining $6 million. Since then, the bridge has come to serve as a beacon of civic pride and a reminder that government and community can work together to accomplish a shared vision.
However, the bridge would look quite different today from its original design if the local preservationist watchdog group Pasadena Heritage hadn’t stepped in during the design review process. They successfully nominated and had the bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was important to do that because back in the ’80s when they first started planning to upgrade the bridge and increase its seismic strength, the early plans called for changing it much more significantly, simplifying it and removing some of its architectural features,” said Sue Mossman, Pasadena Heritage executive director. “Because it was on the Register [of Historic Places] and people love it and it became a symbol of the city, we were able to work with the planners to make sure all of those historic elements were saved and, in some cases, restored. It was Pasadena Heritage that over and over again lobbied to save it and keep it functional and usable as a transportation link. That’s what we do. That’s why we’re here.”
The bridge has also been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
City Engineer Dan Rix said the structure is currently seismically sound and in great condition, thanks to the 1993 repairs. Unlike many bridges in the United States that are in dire need of infrastructural upkeep, Pasadena’s iconic landmark is good to go for the foreseeable future.
Kurtz pointed out that in order to get to this point the repairs involved first weakening the bridge by taking away all the old concrete, steel and its other structural supports. “There were lots of nervous days,” laughed Kurtz. “Like when the engineers came and said to me, ‘If we have an earthquake today, I don’t think it will hold.’”
Rix pointed out that it is expected the bridge can withstand a lot, even another earthquake. “Right now,” Rix said, the Public Works Department doesn’t spend a lot of money on the bridge, “because it’s in such good condition at this time.”

‘Heart of the city’

The beloved 100-year-old Colorado Street Bridge has come to define the essence of Pasadena

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 6/20/2013

What makes the Colorado Street Bridge so special?  
Why does it still attract national, even worldwide attention?
As everyone from these parts knows, the bridge has become infamous for the more than 150 people jumping from it to their deaths since the 149-foot tall and more than 1,400-foot long concrete curvilinear structure — the first bridge of its kind in the nation — was built in 1913.
But perhaps what is even better known is what people who use it see every day — a beautifully crafted work of functional architectural art, one that has inspired the works of painters, poets, writers and photographers for a full century.
Despite the history of tragedy associated with the bridge, there is also much to celebrate about the beloved landmark.
In anticipation of the Colorado Street Bridge Centennial and the city of Pasadena’s 127th anniversary celebration on Saturday, titled “Happy Birthday Pasadena: Celebrating Bridges,” the Pasadena Museum of History has teamed up with photographer Tavo Olmos, who documented the $27.4 million restoration project in 1993. Those repairs involved stripping the bridge of its old deck and deteriorated concrete and exposing its old ribs before restoring it to its former glory. 
The photographs will be featured at the museum on Saturday as “a catalyst to explore organizations that ‘bridge’ aspects of Pasadena’s vibrant community and culture,” according to a press release from the Pasadena Central Library.
A collectable book of Olmos’ photographs, featuring contributions by the principals who guided the restoration project to fruition, will be published by Balcony Press and available this summer, the release continued. In addition, a major exhibition on the Colorado Street Bridge — including these images and many more photographs, artwork and bridge-related objects — will open in November at the Pasadena Museum of History.
While expressing concerns about the darker side of the bridge’s reputation, City Councilman Steve Madison, whose district includes the bridge, pointed out that the bridge has operated over all this time as a road from which riches flow to Pasadena’s shopping and entertainment district, and beyond.
“It’s enhanced our community a great deal,” said Madison. “Its beauty has been the subject of a lot of paintings, and it’s a working bridge, not just a piece of art.”
Perhaps that is what is so attractive and special about the Colorado Street Bridge: Its simplistic functionality coupled with its singular example of grandiose beauty. 
With its graceful Beaux Arts arches, it is at once a marvel of great engineering and a landscape painter’s pinnacle of desire. For those not so artistically inclined, it is also a lot of fun to drive, bicycle or walk over.
“It’s a local transportation link, but also a regional link,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, an organization that has played a pivotal role in the bridge’s preservation and upkeep. “It’s all part of the atmosphere and announces that you’re entering the historic part of the city,” she said of the Old Pasadena business district, located a few blocks from the bridge’s eastern entrance. “It shows that we care about that and you’re in a unique place.”
Terry LeMonchek, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, said she sees the bridge as both timeless and a symbol of hope.
“The thing that’s really wonderful about the bridge is that it’s an elegant statement about Pasadena’s past, both architecturally and historically,” LeMonchek said. By the same token, however, “You can stand on the bridge and see [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], which is like looking into the future,” she said. “That, to me, is Pasadena in its essence.”
“We’re very fortunate in Pasadena,” said former Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz. “We have some great historical structures and buildings. The bridge is really kind of the heart of the city. It’s known all over the world, and it just makes you so proud to know something in Pasadena is that important worldwide. It creates our culture, even our soul, as a city.”