After 81 years, landmark Memorial Bridge is in dire need of renovation


Construction on the Memorial Bridge, near the Lincoln Memorial, is shown in this undated file photograph. (Theodor Horydczak/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, THEODOR HORYDCZAK COLLECTION)

The main lever in the Memorial Bridge control room hasn’t opened the draw span in more than 50 years. The old bridge itself hasn’t had a serious repair job in almost 40 years. And it has never undergone a major overhaul.

The bridge shudders now under the pounding delivered by the 55,000 vehicles that cross on a typical weekday. Last week, the National Park Service took the first steps in a proposed multiyear repair project that could cost as much as $250 million and, under some scenarios, close the 81-year-old span for three months.

This undertaking would affect traffic, the environment, and a historic structure that has served as a venue for funerals, protests and commemorations since it opened in 1932.

“The bridge . . . is really at the end of, and beyond, its life cycle,” Charles N. Borders II, a Park Service transportation branch chief, said Friday.

With its nine graceful arches and its eagle and buffalo medallions, the low-slung neoclassical bridge has been etched into the memory of Washington and the nation.


Memorial Bridge: A crumbling landmark

But some of the drawbridge supports are heavily corroded. The elegant granite balustrades and benches are cracked and chipped. And the concrete and steel underpinnings of the bridge and sidewalks are severely deteriorated.

“The bridge is not unsafe, at all,” Borders said. “It’s stable now.”

But the Park Service has increased inspections, and if major repairs are not made, truck and bus traffic could be banned within five years.

Short-term repairs have been made twice on the bridge in the past two years. But Borders said that last year the Federal Highway Administration, which inspects the structure, reported that more drastic action was needed.

“It’s so old now that . . . piecemeal approaches” are not enough, said Jon James, deputy superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, whose headquarters administers the bridge. “You really have to do a major rehabilitation.”

Borders said that, with funding, construction could begin in 2016. The project could take two to four years.

The span, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, crosses the Potomac River between the Lincoln Memorial, in the District, and the approach to Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia.

It is considered by many to be Washington’s most beautiful bridge, but few may remember it functioning as a drawbridge.

“This is as much a memorial as it is a working bridge,” James said.

Designed in the 1920s by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, the 2,100-foot-long bridge has a central draw span that, in its time, was the longest, heaviest and fastest-opening in the world.

It took one minute to open, according to a Park Service historical study.

The drawbridge, or “bascule,” is 216 feet long. It’s the most complex part of the bridge and would be the most challenging part to fix, the Park Service said.

It has huge gears and motors, a bridge tender’s control room tucked underneath, and two stations, one on each side, that appear to be where a tender activated traffic bollards that rose up to halt cars before an opening.

Options for the drawbridge include replacement with a fixed span of concrete girders or steel girders, and several different levels of repair are being considered. In all cases, the drawbridge would remain fixed.

The drawbridge has been closed since 1961 because other low bridges on the river prevented navigation by taller ships.

“Given the static bridges that are downstream from it, there was no longer a need for its functional use,” said Thomas Sheffer, a planner on the GW Parkway staff.

Several repair options would require closing the bridge entirely for 40 to 100 days. Others would require partial closures over four years.

Thus far, there is no funding for the project, but the Park Service estimates that it could cost $125 million to $250 million.

Borders said that unlike most Park Service projects, repair of the bridge is a regional transportation issue that involves all the area’s transportation agencies. Closure would affect uses ranging from everyday commuter traffic to VIP motorcades and funeral processions.

James said the bridge is used for more than two dozen special events each year, and many tourists and other pedestrians take advantage of its two 17-foot-wide sidewalks.

“And anytime the president goes across to do a wreath-laying, for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, whatever, guess which route he uses,” James said.

If the bridge was closed, traffic would be diverted to other heavily traveled bridges across the Potomac River. “You’ve got limited capacity,” Borders said. “There’s no denying.”

The idea for a bridge in that location goes back to the 1830s. It underwent several designs — some quite grandiose — exalting various people or sentiments.

Over the years, suggested names included Grant Memorial Bridge, Lee Memorial Bridge and the Bridge of Lincoln and Lee, as well as the name it got: Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Borders said the name memorializes the reunion of North and South after the Civil War, just as the bridge connects the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery, which occupies the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s former home.

The bridge has been crossed by countless funeral corteges — including that of Alexander M. Harvey, a Canadian World War I veteran who was borne to Arlington Cemetery two days after the bridge opened in January 1932, and that of Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2009.

It has seen protest marches during the Vietnam War, commemorative walks to mark the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the armies of motorcycle riders who turn out for Memorial Day’s annual Rolling Thunder rally.

Preliminary work on the bridge began in 1925. At least two workers were killed during its construction, one in 1928 and one in 1930. And fire destroyed part of the bridge in 1930, according to news accounts at the time.

The bridge cost $21 million when it was finished. Old news accounts report that the day the bridge opened, it was tested by 30,000 cars.

On Friday, Borders showed some of the damage the bridge has suffered over 81 years, and he indicated an abandoned station, dusty and antiquated, where the bollards were apparently activated. From inside, the tender could monitor traffic through a street-level window and operate the mechanism from a now-rusted panel.

The Park Service has scheduled two public meetings to explain repair options: 2 to 7 p.m. April 23 at the Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 25 at Washington Lee High School, 1301 N. Stafford St., Arlington.

More information is available, and people can comment, at parkplanning.nps.gov/gwmp.

Michael covers monuments, memorials, institutions; lore, ghosts, people of Capital, topics historical, martial, medical.
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