Bridge should cross more than river

How many people spend their free time hanging out on the Washington Avenue Bridge? Not literally hanging, mind you, as a dreary history of suicidal leaps from that mass of concrete and steel girders might imply. How many people linger with healthy intent? Far too few, when you consider that the most defining natural wonder in Minneapolis (perhaps even in the state and country), the Mississippi River, flows mightily below. Consider also, how visually obscured, not to mention inaccessible, the river is from the University that’s said to be built along and around it.
Like much of our commuter campus, the Washington Avenue Bridge provides ample form for our transit functions. We are collectively adept at moving from point A to point B at the University. Students trudge and roll across an upper level pedestrian path between classes on the East and West banks, while cars and campus connectors cruise through the bridge’s paved underbelly.
If Winston Close had had his way in the early 1960s, many of you would be reading this while plopped down in a coffee shop or perusing a bookstore — on the bridge. Close was the architectural adviser to the University from 1950 to 1971 who proposed the bridge’s two-tiered design. He envisioned an interior walkway that would have been more than a thoroughfare across the river, a Minnesota take on the famed “old bridge,” or Ponte Vecchio, in Florence, Italy.
For those, like me, who have not seen Ponte Vecchio firsthand, a painting on the far back wall of [email protected] Grind, a Stadium Village coffeehouse, offers one impression. Brownstone walls smattered with windows, balconies and an open-air footpath form an enclosed extension of the terra-cotta buildings on either side of a river. Travel guides say the Ponte Vecchio was built during the Renaissance and was Florence’s only bridge to survive World War II. But it’s more than the oldest way to cross the River Arno. Gold- and silversmiths craft jewelry in shops haunted by tourists who flock to this span of housing and commerce.
Close’s idea of modeling the Washington Avenue Bridge as a more modest version of the Ponte Vecchio never blossomed.
“I think he was always fascinated by this concept of the bridge as being more than just a pathway, but a unifier of the two campuses, a place where activity occurred and people could just be and enjoy the environment,” explained Close’s son, Robert, a University alumnus. The Cedar-Riverside area was developing in the late 1950s, and the design aimed to connect this “new city” on the West Bank with the University’s East Bank campus. The enclosed space on the pedestrian path was designed to be heated and allow flexible use for coffee and food carts, even a bookstore. But constant heating problems — like stalagmite-shaped ice formations — led the University to lighten the load on its energy bill in the 1970s. “It’s tough conveying heat out there,” Robert said. “It’s easier in Florence, Italy.”
Close’s vision of a living, animated space was downsized by the pragmatism of the Minnesota Department of Transportation when construction began in 1962. Since then, the bridge’s aesthetics have been bashed by everyone from campus visitors to legislators questioning whether the University, which maintains the top level, could keep its house clean.
With that in mind, President Yudof and 150 paintbrush-toting helpers kicked off “Beautiful U Day” in 1997 by giving the indoor walkway a 75-gallon dose of maroon and gold — its first make-over in a decade.
Hennepin County, the bridge’s proprietor and the group responsible for tending to the lower roadway, was going to take beautification to the next level in April by painting the entire bridge. However, their $5 million plans were pushed back a year while waiting for permission from the state.
Ugly yet efficient, the bridge’s innovative design is still a story of what could have been.
The proposed cosmetic changes leave one wondering why the University and local government agencies, as bureaucratic brothers in arms, are not striving to make the bridge more golden-feeling, as opposed to more golden-looking. What happened to bringing a little Italian flair to Minnesota? We do not need jewelry vendors, but a place to sit and sip a cup of joe while basking in the splendor of the mighty Mississippi would not be so much to shoot for, would it?
Such plans have been advocated many times in the past 20 years, by such notable voices as Frederick Weisman Art Museum Director Lyndel King and Dianne Skomars, the wife of former president C. Peter Mcgrath, explained Ray Jackson, University senior engineer. “There’s always been an intention to do something with that bridge, but there’s always been obstacles,” Jackson said. Heating difficulties aside, the bridge wasn’t built to support the weight of a retail strip. Stocking a bookstore or constructing a kitchen would be too much for the bridge’s “live load.” Still, the concept could possibly work if mobile carts were rolled out from Coffman Union.
Instead, we find ourselves investing $45 million into a Coffman renovation — with hopes that the new and improved place to spend our ample college dollars will provide a view of the river in the building’s backyard. The University’s master plan says hug and squeeze, and call the river a campus friend. In reality, a cold shoulder has been turned on our natural neighbor.
In the meantime, we keep walking, biking and driving over, and in some cases jumping off, the spartan bridge a few hundred feet away. The bridge’s unfortunate notoriety as host to leaps into the afterlife only adds gloom to the lonely aura evoked for the solitary travelers who stop to gaze out at the river on a cold, cloudy evening.
Sitting against the wall of the enclosed walkway looking out at the Minneapolis skyline, I can feel the occasional rumbling of vehicles passing below. The traffic noises are almost soothing, and aside from the random bicyclists gliding by soundlessly every ten minutes or so, the bridge offers solitude. A passerby named Zach stops his bike ride to introduce himself — and another side of the bridge — to me. He asks if I have ever been atop the enclosed walkway, then shows me how to climb up. It is even more peaceful up there, where views of the city skyline mingle with the flapping sounds of Golden Gopher flags. I tell Zach the little I know of the bridge’s original design plans that would have invited others to linger amidst majestic sight-lines of the river valley. “There’s a lot of business potential,” he says, adding, “since that seems to be what the University is interested in — money.”

Jake Kapsner’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]