Historic Bridge Restoration: Preserving the Past Is an Investment in the Future

In addition to its function as a component of transportation infrastructure, a historic bridge can be a local landmark that reinforces a community’s ‘sense of place.’ Joining us as a guest blogger, GAI Director of Transportation Services Mike Wenning, PE discusses how historic bridge restoration can be a sensible and desirable approach that can often realize reduced costs and increased longevity.

I’ve been involved in historic bridge restoration for more than 30 years. One thing I’ve learned over the course of more than 500 historic bridge restoration projects is that the significance of a historic bridge can reach beyond its function as a component of transportation infrastructure. About a year ago, I shared some tips for undertaking a successful historic bridge restoration project—now, I’d like to discuss some ways these projects can benefit the communities they serve.

Historic bridges are often signature structures that help define a community’s unique sense of place. Indeed, many historic bridges represent milestone advancements in technology or design—designs that with the proper rehabilitation can serve the public for generations to come. These considerations make historic bridge restoration a sensible and desirable approach that can often realize reduced costs and increased longevity.

Reinforcing Heritage and History

Landmark spans like San Francisco’s Golden Gate or New York’s Brooklyn Bridge are world-famous historic bridges that are tightly woven into the identity of their respective cities. We’re privileged here at GAI to take part in historic bridge restoration projects around the U.S. that mean just as much to their local communities.

It’s gratifying to help a community preserve a bridge that is piece of its local heritage while upgrading the structure for improved safety, strength, and performance.

Historic bridge restoration means something to me, too. I serve as a Director of the Midwest Bridge Preservation Partnership, and it’s gratifying to help a community preserve a bridge that is piece of its local heritage while upgrading the structure for improved safety, strength, and performance.

Rebuilding Today to Save for Tomorrow

In addition to its value to community identity, a historic bridge can often offer a valuable glimpse back in time to a significant moment in engineering advancement or civic design.

One example among my work for GAI is the Senate Avenue over Fall Creek Bridge in Indianapolis, Indiana. Built in 1919, it is classified as “select” in the Indiana Historic Bridge Inventory. The Senate Avenue Bridge is a wonderful example of a Luten Arch bridge. From the technical and engineering achievement perspective, Luten Arches were among the first uses of reinforced concrete in U.S. bridge construction. In this historic bridge restoration project for the City of Indianapolis, GAI provided engineering and design services including patching concrete on the bridge’s arch ring, spandrel walls, and piers, and installing new sidewalks, railings, and a reinforced concrete deck. Our innovative approach to the restoration worked to extend the projected life of the bridge and saved the city more than $100,000 in budgeted construction costs.

Senate Avenue Bridge
Historic illustration of the Senate Avenue over Fall Creek Bridge, Indianapolis, Indiana.

The community of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was initially unsure about preserving the Eighth Street Bridge, which spans the Big Sioux River. The Eighth Street Bridge is the only surviving arch bridge in Sioux Falls—further, it is the architectural centerpiece of the city’s $10M river walkway development project. There were many aesthetic, historic, and community-identity considerations for choosing to restore this historic bridge—but the project’s projected cost savings were the icing on the cake. GAI was contracted to analyze various restoration options for the Eighth Street Bridge, and repair estimates came in at nearly $6M less than the cost of replacement. Both options have a 75-year design life.

Historic illustration and photograph of the Eighth Street Bridge, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

A Foundation for Future Achievements

Europe and Asia are peppered with historic bridges—some more than 1,000 years old—that are still standing and often still in operation. The United States is still a relatively young nation, but if we don’t start seeking more ways to preserve our historic bridges and other structures, what evidence of our architectural achievements will be left for future generations to enjoy? Historic bridge restoration offers a prime opportunity to revisit successful civic engineering and rebuild upon those foundations to create sound, safe, high-performing structures that can reinforce community identity and offer beautiful reminders of a proud past.

Is your community home to an iconic historic bridge that’s in need of restoration? Please feel free to write in and tell us about it.

Mike Wenning, PE is currently serving a three-year term as a Director of the Midwest Bridge Preservation Partnership (MWBPP). Sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration, MWBPP’s mission is to develop strategies and actions to prevent or delay bridge deterioration and disseminate that information amongst the different transportation agencies throughout the country.

For related information, check out the following articles:

Mike Wenning’s Top 5 Tips for Historic Bridge Restoration | November 3, 2016

GAI Engineer Authors Book, Tells Visual Story of “City of Bridges” | November 24, 2015

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