D.C.’s finest bridge gets a mini-makeover


The Memorial Bridge in open position, Washington DC. (Cleveland State University Library/COURTESY OF CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY)
John Kelly
Columnist September 29, 2012

No one has been able to tell me the reason for the very temporary-looking, yet seemingly permanent, ramps that were built on either side of the Memorial Bridge some time ago. My best guess is to improve the view over the walls by people in wheelchairs, but I’d love to know the full explanation. I drive by them every day and wonder.

— Gary Stoiber, Alexandria

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The ramps are just one clue that the 80-year-old bridge is getting a facelift — or, more accurately, a deck lift.

“Various sections of Memorial Bridge are going to be repaired,” said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The work started in early September.

The entire bridge isn’t being repaved, just the center section and six other smaller locations. As for those wooden ramps, the Park Service said in a statement: “The temporary pedestrian and bicycle bridges on both sides of the bridge are in place to allow pedestrian and bicycle use while repairs are underway.”

Currently the concrete deck in the middle of the bridge is being repaired, along with the sidewalks and granite curbs. The curbs will be numbered so each can be put back in the same place. The sidewalks will be replaced where necessary. Some work is being done on the underside of the bridge, too, though you won’t see that unless you’re in a boat.

Traffic will be affected, though Bill said at least one lane in each direction will be kept open for the duration of the work, which everyone hopes will be finished by late November or early December. The cost for the project is $788,375.

There are no plans, Bill said, to allow Memorial Bridge to do something it was able to do when it was dedicated in 1932: open up. It was designed as a drawbridge, after all, though that feature hasn’t been utilized in decades. (Once the low-slung — and non-opening — Teddy Roosevelt Bridge was built upstream, there was no need for Memorial Bridge to open. Tall boats weren’t going anywhere. The bridge last opened on Feb. 28, 1961.)

The bascule-style span is evidence of the bridge’s utilitarian side, but the bridge was always meant to be as beautiful as it was functional. It is symbolic, too, linking as it does the North with the South. Answer Man always takes visitors to the back of the Lincoln Memorial and points across the Potomac to Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home. (Another bit of trivia: The head of the commission that oversaw the construction of Memorial Bridge was Ulysses Grant III, grandson of Lee’s foe.)

The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White designed the neoclassical-style span, which consists of nine arches. Eight of the arches are reinforced concrete faced with granite. The ninth is the bascule: the two leaves of the drawbridge.

The bascule’s design was by the Strauss Engineering Corporation, best known for its work on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. One challenge engineers faced with Memorial Bridge was what to make the counterweights from. Typically, scrap steel was mixed with concrete, but not enough steel could be found in the United States. Other ingredients were tested — furnace cinders, copper slag — before it was decided that the entire contents of an iron ore ship from Sweden — 2,400 gross tons’ worth — would be purchased.

The total cost of the bridge was $7.25 million. An indication of how important it was that the bridge look attractive is that almost half that cost went into procuring and carving the granite facing. The draw span itself cost $900,000. Of that, $400,000 was spent on ornamentation, including molybdenum steel pressed to resemble masonry.

Many consider Memorial Bridge to be Washington’s most attractive bridge, and that’s not even mentioning the heroic figures by Leo Friedlander on the Washington side.

Island hopping

Reader Paul Stillwell pointed out a pair of errors in last week’s column on Bill Beall’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of a D.C. policeman and child. Joe Rosenthal, who snapped the iconic flag-raising on Iwo Jima, was not a Marine photographer but a civilian working for the Associated Press. And as Iwo Jima itself is north of the equator, it is not in the South Pacific.

Have a question about the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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