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Icons Among Us: The BU Bridge

Busted up, bruised, but still beautiful

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In the slide show above, take a look at the BU Bridge.

She’s missing a nameplate, showing rebar; her curbs are chewed up by time and elements, but you just can’t beat the view from the BU Bridge. You get the downtown skyline, the pulsating Citgo sign, Beacon Hill capped with the gleaming golden dome of the Statehouse, Esplanade greenery, sailboats and scullers on tea-colored water, all in one dizzy swatch. And at night? All diamonds and silk.

The 81-year-old steel truss bridge is undergoing a $28 million rehab that will replace the deck and sidewalks, among other repairs. The span (technically U.S. Route 2) connecting Cambridge and Boston carries an estimated 41,000 vehicles each day over the Charles. The bridge’s dominant feature, a central steel arch painted green, is losing a decadeslong war to rust. Ornate concrete columns punctuate both ends like fat exclamation points.

“The BU Bridge has a heroic character in the sense that you have to go through this truss work, through this tunneled armature, almost like an erector set or a Ferris wheel,” says Arthur Krim, who teaches historic preservation at Boston Architectural College and consults for the Massachusetts Historical Commission. “You get the sense that you’re moving through something, and you are — you’re crossing from Suffolk County to Middlesex County, from Boston to Cambridge, crossing two different tones of culture.”

Originally named the Cottage Farm Bridge (after a nearby Brookline neighborhood), the bridge was built in 1928. Designed by Desmond & Lord, it replaced an 1850s drawbridge called the Brookline Bridge. “The Cottage Farm Bridge was an auto-era bridge for the parkways that were being built in and around Boston at that time,” Krim says.

Before the Charles became a recreational playground, the waterway served industrial masters. Coal barges plowed upstream to deliver fuel to the Blackstone Power Station at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive, one reason for the BU Bridge’s height. The other is that the Cottage Farm neighborhood rose out of natural high ground, some 25 feet above the flood stage.

“Because the bridge sits high above the river at this narrow bend in the river, it’s distinctive,” Krim says. “You can see into the Back Bay. You can see what’s going on at Fenway, or the Citgo sign, or the July 4th fireworks celebration.”

In 1949, a group of Boston University students lobbied state lawmakers to rename the bridge, which at the time marked the western boundary of the Charles River Campus. The proposal passed without a dissenting vote. In May of that year, the renaming was celebrated with a parade of ROTC members and “pretty Boston University coeds,” according to the Boston Herald-Traveler. BU President Daniel Marsh (STH’08, Hon.’53) unveiled a commemorative plaque (long since stolen) that cited BU’s “service to state & nation.”

The CSX Railroad Bridge
Running diagonally below the BU Bridge is a steel-plate girder railroad bridge, built in 1927, and carrying the CSX Transportation Grand Junction Line. The rail carries freight, not passengers, and has dropped from two working tracks to one. “It’s very dramatic to have that in Boston, that double-transport, scissors-like structure,” says Krim. “You’re driving along Storrow Drive and you realize, gee, there’s a bridge and then there’s another bridge.”

The rail bridge is also a graffiti artist’s playground. A dozen or more large steel square sections, double-sided, serve as urban canvases; Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous Andre the Giant face adorns several. Most of the tags, however, are school logos, from MIT to Tufts, crew squads in particular, some dating back to 1997. The bridge is federal property, technically speaking, and defacing it is against the law. Although the “decorations” get painted over regularly, they always return, and the train trestle has become a part of the bridge’s character, a tattooed appendage.

Rumor has it that the graffiti closest to BU’s DeWolfe Boathouse is done by the freshman women’s team every year before the Head of the Charles. “My freshman year it said, ‘do work boston,’” says a BU coxswain who wished to remain anonymous. “This past fall they painted ‘free money,’ and they will probably paint something new up there around October.”

Contrary to popular myth, the BU Bridge is not the only place in the world where a boat can row under a train driven under a car driven under an airplane; the Steel Bridge across the Willamette River in Portland, Ore., and the 25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal, claim the same quirky distinction.

Rehab
The BU Bridge, now operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, is a shambles. The sidewalks and traffic surface have been in disrepair for some time, you can see the river through holes in the deck, and the iron stairs leading down to Storrow Drive are rusted over. The feds have categorized the bridge as “structurally deficient” under National Bridge Inspection Standards, although the main structural elements are considered sound. A three-year, $28.2 million rehab, designed to improve pedestrian and bicycle access as well as car flow, is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. The northern sidewalk and railing were replaced earlier this year.

But despite intrusive fencing, construction barrels, and Jersey barriers, the BU Bridge holds steady in the hearts of locals, as much an icon and a part of the collective consciousness as the Citgo sign and the Esplanade.

“It’s still dramatic, particularly when you’re in slow traffic,” Krim says. “It’s always been slow, and now of course, it’s slower. People have accepted it.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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2 Comments

2 Comments on Icons Among Us: The BU Bridge

  • cdanilof on 09.22.2009 at 11:10 am

    liked your BU bridge story

    Hey Caleb:

    Just wanted to write and say I liked your BU bridge story. I love that old bridge and you more than did it justice. I teach over in the journalism department as an adjunct, so always check out the BU website via the daily emails.

    Amy Sutherland

  • kathy on 09.24.2009 at 2:37 pm

    DCR destroying wildlife habitat

    You may not realize it, but the DCR has failed to get an EIS, because it claims it does not need one, due to its deceptive trick of breaking up the “Vision” of “restoring” the Charles River Reservation into small discrete projects that do not triger the EIS requirement.

    http://cipapa.blogspot.com/2009/09/great-blue-heron-clings-to-narrow.html

    Therefore, the wildlife habiata at the BU bridge is being destroyed, and the great Blue Heron and other wildlife being removed by this human activity, or should I say in-humane activity.

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