Drive through the village of Aldie in rural western Loudoun County, negotiate the sharp curves past leafy woods and centuries-old houses, and there's a graceful relic that has endured since the early 1800s.
It's an arched stone bridge, a testament to the handiwork of German masons who crafted the 124-foot-long span to carry horse-drawn buggies over Beaverdam Creek.
To nearby residents, it's a treasure tucked away in a suburban landscape increasingly marred by strip malls and chain stores. But to Virginia highway engineers, Hibbs Bridge is a headache.
Like "London Bridge" of the childhood ditty, Hibbs Bridge is falling down. Fixes are expensive. What's more, the engineers grouse, the bridge is too narrow, unsafe in today's traffic.
After years of fighting with residents about plans for a new bridge, state highway engineers recently went public with their latest idea: a new, wider span, faced with stones taken from the old bridge.
State officials call their plan innovative and "out of the box." Horrified residents and county officials say it would turn their timeless treasure into a gaudy trinket--making it look like something out of a theme park.
"It would totally destroy the character. It's Disney recreating history," said Jane Smith, 57, a resident of Philomont who has been battling with transportation officials about the bridge for five years. "You don't have your stone arch bridge anymore. That's gone. It wouldn't even look like it."
At the heart of the dispute is a clash of cultures. Residents tend to see the engineers as sitting in an office somewhere plugging traffic numbers into computers that spit out proposals for roads and bridges that all look alike--hulking concrete slabs that carry lots of traffic.
"They are the perpetrators or the perpetuators of what is called standardization, and that's what we don't want," said Kathy Mitchell of Bluemont, president of an association that has been fighting to preserve Snickersville Turnpike, which includes Hibbs Bridge. "That's when this place starts to lose its unique identity."
But the Virginia Department of Transportation says the bridge--one of only four 19th-century arched stone bridges in the state that still carry traffic--is becoming unsafe as more people use it. Every day about 1,200 cars cross Hibbs Bridge. In 10 years, as Loudoun grows, that number is predicted to climb to 2,000. The bridge is too narrow to handle that, VDOT bridge engineer Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson said. Motorists are already crashing into the parapets, creating safety hazards, he added.
"Everything that we believe and have been trained [in] says this is the way we should go," Nicholson said. "We concur that this is something we need to preserve in our state history. We are using the technology and everything out there to do that and to make it usable for both today's use and future use."
VDOT's plan calls for replacing the 22-foot-wide span with what engineers say is a safer, more durable 28-foot-wide bridge.
Supporters of keeping the current bridge say that accidents are rare there and that the span lies in a shallow valley, with straight lines of sight in both directions. It is far from a safety hazard, Mitchell said; she and others say it helps slow speeding traffic.
Hibbs Bridge is on Route 734, originally built in the early 1800s to carry goods from Loudoun and the Shenandoah Valley to the port of Alexandria. Across Beaverdam Creek, the turnpike builders constructed a humped bridge with two stone arches, parapets framing the sides and dirt packed in the middle. Hibbs Bridge was named after several nearby millers.
Nearly two centuries later, "the mortar that holds the masonry stones together has deteriorated," explained Nicholson. "It's not holding it together anymore."
VDOT has made routine repairs and imposed a weight limit of six tons. Workers have mortared stones back on the parapets, in some cases smearing mortar over them. They also have encased the bottom of the bridge in cement to preserve it.
Continuing deterioration could force drastic action, engineers say.
With the residents and VDOT at an impasse, county supervisors and state lawmakers have intervened on the residents' side--so far, to no avail. Loudoun County even hired its own bridge expert, who said Hibbs could be preserved if the state spent $500,000 to replace some of the dirt under the roadbed with cement and to make other repairs.
"Hibbs Bridge has become a manhood issue with VDOT. They have to prove that they're in charge," said Loudoun Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer). "There is most assuredly a culture clash. People out here resent VDOT and VDOT's approach to things: widen, straighten [and] design roads to move high volumes of traffic."
VDOT's Nicholson said the reasons for wanting to replace the bridge are safety and cost effectiveness--not a need to exert authority.
Thomas Farley, the agency's district administrator, said his department has been trying to work with residents and has scaled down the size of the proposed new bridge at their request. He said transportation officials are sensitive to historic sites.
"What we try to do is preserve those historic structures to the best of our ability," he said. "VDOT's direction is to maintain and restore and improve transportation facilities."
Nicholson said he and two private VDOT consultants believe that the fix proposed by Loudoun's consultant would not solve underlying safety issues. Moreover, he said, the repairs would not last as long as a new bridge.
As the debate continues, Hibbs Bridge endures as a thing of beauty in the eyes of its neighbors, a piece of architecture that echoes a slower time.
From her living room window, Thelma Altizer, 81, has had a clear view of the splendid span for 51 years. For her, changing it would be wrenching.
"It's just a nice old bridge. I like the little hump in there," Altizer said as she gazed out her front window, smiling. "It just needs a little repair."
CAPTION: Residents want to preserve Hibbs Bridge, built in the early 1800s, but VDOT officials want to replace the 22-foot-wide span with a 28-foot-wide bridge.