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.”