Washington is a city of monumental bridges. Think of the Taft Memorial Bridge, which carries Connecticut Avenue over Rock Creek Park. Massive lions guard the approaches there. Tigers adorn the 16th Street/Piney Branch Bridge. Memorial Bridge has huge, golden mounted horsemen.
And now the New York Avenue Bridge has “Gateway Wings.”
That’s the name of the work installed in August, which is scheduled to be dedicated Thursday.
“What is curious about this is it was never our name when we started,” said Kent Bloomer, the New Haven, Conn., artist who designed the work. “I never used it in any of my sketches.”
Kent didn’t think in terms of “wings,” but as more people saw the sculpture, that’s the word that stuck.
He was thinking gateway, though. The process began three years ago, when the D.C. Transportation Department decided that the bridge — which was undergoing a much-needed renovation — could use some prettying up. It turned to the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities to oversee the project.
Kent was among those on the shortlist for the project. He toured the area, saw that NoMa was exploding and wanted to create an iconic entryway.
“Being excited or happy by the celebration of entering [a city] is as old as mankind,” he told Answer Man.
“You can go back to the beginning of civilization, when it was just a little altar or something in the middle of nomadic or newly settled people. The making of gates and the making of paths that lead you into the more important center of things has been practiced for 10,000 years.”
Kent started by drawing a big ellipse that went over and under the bridge.
In its final incarnation, the ellipse is not complete. It’s open at the top, with two curving pieces that seem to reach toward one another. The arches are 52 feet high — about five stories — with arms that are nearly 56 feet long. Each arch, fabricated from structural steel, weighs 22 tons.
“We started with something basically akin to a triumphal arch, and then I said we had to ornament those arches,” Kent said.
Ornamenting is important to Kent, who sees it as a sadly neglected area of contemporary architecture. The eastern sides of the arches are covered in a complex array of what he calls foliation: green and cream-colored aluminum diamonds reminiscent of leaves.
“It does not exactly mean foliage,” Kent said. “It’s a word descended from the art of ornament, where you get geometry and let it start coming alive, as if bursting into bloom.”
Such decoration has its roots in Greek and Roman art, where it signifies life and vigor.
The cost of the sculpture was $500,000, said Sarah Massey of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. “The iconic nature of the piece and how well it fits, it’s really quite magical, I think,” she said.
One final aspect of the work has been a bit balky: Sophisticated lights are meant to bathe the arches at night. The lights are able to pulse and change color — when they function. Workers are scrambling to get them fixed in time for Thursday’s dedication.
(In that regard, it calls to mind the treatment of the tender’s building on the 14th Street bridge, which has windows made from a special plastic that refracts light into a kaleidoscope of colors. The light there is being fixed, too, Sarah said.)
Kent said he’s already heard good things about “Gateway Wings,” including from a woman who wrote with her compliments.
“She said she’s been driving across the bridge for 25 years and always thought it was a sad way to enter the District of Columbia,” Kent said.
Of course, New York Avenue is already in Washington at that point, but Florida Avenue — the old Boundary Street — marks the entrance to the center of town. The new arches announce that you’ve arrived.
Curious about something you’ve seen? Answer Man may have the, um, answer. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.