What is modern and what is historic, when we look at bridges in general? This question is very difficult because it is based on the individual bridge and its appearance. Sometimes we cross a truss bridge that looks as old as the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation (between 67 and 70 years ofn age) even though it was built in the 1980s. But we have crossed concrete bridges that appear to be modern, but are at least between 70 and 90 years of age. In the eyes of many people, a bridge is historical if and only if they are older than 50 years of age and it has a unique value that can be tied in with the history of architecture and as a whole, the history of the US. Modern bridges are those whose aesthetic value may be next to nill at the present but will increase over time as the bridge ages and the legacy of the bridge designers and contractors are mentioned. Modernization and history never ever mix on one particular bridge.
Or does it?
Looking at the Sutliff Bridge in northeastern Johnson County in Iowa, this debate has certainly been at the fore front recently, as the easternmost span of the bridge was reerected, and the bridge is now open to traffic. One has to take a look at the background information to understand its history. Built in 1898 by J.R. Sheely and Company of Des Moines, the bridge became the centerpiece of the village of Sutliff, consisting of a country store, blacksmith shop, outdoor movie theater, a nearby school and a park and pavilion. The three-span pin-connected Parker through truss bridge served as a main artery to the village until it was replaced in 1983. In 1984, the bridge was given to the Sutliff Bridge Authority (SBA), who converted the structure into a pedestrian bridge. 15 years later on 11 September, 1999, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with Ray Brannaman (founder of the SBA) quoting that “Our hope is that it’s never torn down.”
Unfortunately, on 13 June, 2008 at 12:23pm, the eastern Parker through truss span was knocked off its foundations by the raging waters of the Cedar River, carrying it 100 yards down the river before it became a pile of twisted steel at the bottom of the river. It was the same year that the 500 year flood took place, which inundated two thirds of Iowa and the cities of Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. For four years, the bridge was nothing more than an island of two Parker truss spans. I was at the bridge twice in 2010 and last year providing my observations which can be seen by clicking here.
Fast forwarding to the present, October 2012, the bridge has been reconnected and is now open to traffic. It is still listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And the people are happy to see their bridge back in service, thanks to the efforts conducted by all parties involved, from the SBA to Johnson County to the state and federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which authorized the use of federal money for the bridge, and the State Historic Preservation Office, which ensured that the rebuilt bridge matches that of the original structure to meet the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places. Then there is the bridge builder, Iowa Bridge and Culvert, who reconstructed the bridge.
However, there are some features on the new structure that are somewhat different than the original bridge. Looking at the pictures provided by Quinn Phelan, the Historic Engineer’s Record and yours truly, can you identify them and post them in the comment section?
Going back to the topic of modern bridge versus historic bridges, many people have scoffed at the notion that the rebuilding of the Sutliff Bridge was a waste of FEMA money, while some preservationists have claimed that the rebuilt Sutliff Bridge is nothing more than just a modern bridge. What do you think of that notion? Do you think that the bridge was restored as much to its original form as possible, or do you think the truss span is just a plain modern span which is modern in its form? And if that is the case, do you think the newly built Sutliff Bridge represents a case where modern bridge meets historic bridge, and if so, do the rebuilt and original spans conform to each other or are they contrasting to each other?
Look at the pics and I’m looking forward to your thoughts on them. A follow up on the topic with some interview questions with parties involves will follow this article. Stay tuned.