Monday, September 16, 2013

Relief for Art Deco Reliefs and the Ashland Avenue Bridge?

click images for larger view
With all the current controversy over economic stimulus, it's easy to forget how much of the infrastructure that today allows Chicago to function arose out of just such stimulus during the Great Depression.  And how much of it today is crumbling in the absence of a modern equivalent.

A case in point is the Ashland Avenue bridge over the north branch of the Chicago River.  It was part of a $50 million stimulus package from the FDR's Public Works Administration that built bridges, schools, and fire and police stations throughout Chicago.

The biggest component of the package was the new $7 million Outer Drive bridge, whose October 5, 1937 dedication was attended by no less than FDR himself. One year before, there had a more locally-based celebration for another component of the $50 million plan - the new Ashland Avenue bridge over the north branch of the Chicago river.  It's dedication on August 20th, 1936 brought out 10,000 spectators.  80 associations participated in organizing a massive parade that began all the way down at 69th street, moved north to the bridge for the noon ceremonies, and then past it to Irving Park.

The $1,713,000 cost for the new bridge included $483,500 of PWA funding, bringing out agency head Harold Ickes to witness what he had got for his money.  The balance came from the City of Chicago's share of Illinois motor fuel taxes.
Designed by City of Chicago architect Scippione Del Campo, the double-leaf bascule bridge has a span of 232 feet, an overall length of 386.5 feet, and a roadway width of 60 feet, with 12-foot sidewalks on either side.  Tall steel pylons mark each entrance.  The American Bridge Company of New York was the fabricator.  The robust structure was visually anchored at either end by a tender house with art deco reliefs.   20,000 vehicles were projected to cross the bridge every 24 hours.  The two Ashland Avenue bridges, including a second bridge dedicated along the southern branch the following year, were the culmination of a $22 million project to transform Ashland Avenue into “a modern highway 21 miles long.”
It's clear the long-neglected bridge needs some tender loving care.    The windows of the tender houses have been replaced with glass block, now damaged.   Of the four relief panels depicting the river as a heroic figure, the two on the north tender house seem in best shape.
river architect
river mechanic
Those to the south, however, are being taken over by vines much like the jungle overtook old Manaus.  Both green vines . . .
. . . and dead branches overtaking the handsome relief like a spider capturing a victim in its web.
As far back as 2010, Blair Kamin was reporting that help was on its way, with the Chicago Department of Transportation promising to remove the overgrown vegetation, clean the gutters and provide other basic maintenance.  Yet today, the bridge seems to have been left to rot.  Complicating the process is that since Ashland is a county route, the bridge is technically owned by Cook County.  CDOT is only responsible for maintenance.

The original Bedford limestone balustrades and pylons - nearly a mile's worth - are crumbling and collapsing.  
In April of this year, the  Chicago Art Deco Society filed a community recommendation with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks that the bridge be designated a Chicago Landmark.  It's also one of the Chicago Bascule Bridges listed among 2013's Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list from Landmarks Illinois.

The Ashland Avenue bridge is an enormously attractive piece of civic infrastructure.  Once such Art Deco panels could be found on the Ogden Avenue viaduct, but since the viaduct's demolition in 1995, the Ashland bridge is the only place where they survive.  You can still see some of the Ogden panels in the St. Ignatius Architecture graveyard.
Ogden Viaduct panel
Ogden Viaduct panel
According to a Curbed Chicago report, the Chicago Department of Transportation is preparing a Chicago Bascule Bridge Preservation Plan.  It can't come too soon. 
I suppose the Ashland reliefs could be added to St. Ignatius's holdings, but that's not really where they're most needed.   It may be the kind of infrastructure that we use every today without really seeing, but the Ashland Avenue bridge, its tender houses and reliefs, are essential elements of Chicago's cultural history.  They cannot be sacrificed without unmooring the city from the timeline that gives it meaning.


Chicago Art Deco Society said...

Thank you so much for the wealth of information and images!

Anonymous said...

Great work! No less important are the Chicago Avenue and Division Street bridges which are also endangered.

The two new bridges (one at Halsted and the other at North) are TERRIBLE. Design aside, they have opened up traffic to move at tremendous speeds (for all of a half mile) and endanger cyclists and pedestrians alike. Seriously, I walk the Halsted bridge a few times a week and cars go by so fast that I watch from the sidewalk lest I need to dive out of the way!

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing.

Deco was truly the peak of Modernism – the perfect integrations of reductive design and uplifting decorative spirt – not the International Style, which was the depressing expression of Modernism in its long, painful descent.

Not one Miesian building raises the human spirit like a single Chicago bridge tender house. I'd rather live in a city of Deco era tender houses than the Illinois Center like Meisian crap that followed.

stone said...

Amazing! Thanks for sharing!

Mr Downtown said...

One of the overlooked features of the Ashland bridge is the trolley wire retrievers at the four corners, shaped as tall streamlined pylons. Today they are merely decorative, but these prevented the overhead wires powering Ashland Avenue streetcars from drooping when the bridge was lifted. Other bridges had prosaic arrangements retrofitted onto them, but at Ashland the requirement elegantly became part of the design (they also housed the warning bell and illuminated STOP signs). When the trolley wire was removed in 1954, the counterweights just dropped to the bottom, where they're still visible inside the pylons.

Bob said...

Wendy, an excellent and informative piece. Lots of insight that the casual observer would've likely missed. Also, it is just nice to find someone who knows how to write well -- technically and creatively (love the analogy, "like the jungle overtook old Manaus").

P.S. Mr. Downtown, thanks for that informative detail!