Art Project to Add Psychedelic Touch to Staid Bridge

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009; 1:34 PM

A beacon of the most curious sort has come to one of Washington's southern gateways, a unique display that will capture the attention of all who pass and the affection of those intrigued by the unusual.

It is a kaleidoscope in the watchtower on the 14th Street Bridge.

Yes, a kaleidoscope flashes thousands of glimmering colors in six directions from the stone tower where the keeper of the drawbridge once sat.

The bridge is almost 60 years old, and it hasn't been called on to open since the 1960s. The abandoned tower long ago lost its glass windows and has greeted thousands of northbound cars each day with a plywood facade unsuited to a main road into the nation's capital.

This rude greeting became apparent to someone at the D.C. Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, and the agency turned to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for help in 2005.

"It was such an eyesore coming into the city, so we thought that was a great idea, because it was such a gateway piece," said Rachel Dickerson, public arts manager for the commission.

The Transportation Department folks, who by trade are not the artistic type, didn't know quite what they wanted, so they left that up to Dickerson and company.

"They thought some sort of enhancement would make it better, some sort of public art," she said.

The arts commission took a bunch of artists on a tower tour and then turned them loose. There were five finalists for the project, and Massachusetts artist Mikyoung Kim was selected to create the kaleidoscope she proposed.

The kaleidoscope is constructed with six dichroic acrylic cones placed inside the tower, one facing each window pane. There is a mirror at the bottom of each cone, and a light that helps with the reflection. The dichroic cones produce different hues when viewed from various angles.

The final lighting is still in the works and could be operational by the end of the month, Dickerson said. The beacon has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, which governs lighting on bridges over navigable waters. It will revolve, much like the light in a lighthouse. But it won't be so bright that it will alarm or distract drivers, Dickerson said.

"It's not in-your-face," she said. "It will be a very colorful experience, very inviting. It's a subtle, 'Hello, you're in D.C. now,' but not too blaring.

"It will be a welcome to commuters and visitors to town."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company