North Avenue bridge

From landmark to landfill: The 1921 North Avenue Viaduct

North Avenue Bridge, Milwaukee

The North Avenue viaduct opened to traffic in 1921. The 1,385-foot-long reinforced concrete bridge was designed by Marquette University professor James C. Pinney and included large public restrooms at either end and “detailed neoclassical ornamentation,” all long gone when this photograph was taken in 1987. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51–1

Completed in 1921, the 1,385-foot-long North Avenue Viaduct was the fourth bridge at this location and certainly the most beautiful. Using state-of-the-art (for its era) construction techniques, the reinforced concrete bridge featured large public comfort stations (restrooms) at either end, along with “detailed neoclassical ornamentation,” such as railings supported by 3,000 concrete balusters, the casting of which was the full-time occupation of seven workers during the bridge’s two-year construction.

Deterioration was evident as the bridge entered the 1980s and so was the lasting elegance of its design. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51--2

Deterioration was evident as the bridge entered the 1980s and so was the elegance of its design. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51–2

But seven decades of wear and tear can claim even an engineering masterpiece. In 1984, the Public Works Department decided the old viaduct was beyond repair and started planning its replacement. Projects of this magnitude take time, and by 1987 increasingly worried city officials had shored up parts of the viaduct with timber, banned vehicles over 10 tons, and were conducting weekly inspections.

In 1988 Milwaukee newspapers ran a legal notice from the city offering to sell the bridge on the condition the buyer disassemble the 1,385-foot-long structure, rebuild it elsewhere, and maintain it forever. To sweeten the deal, the city offered to pay up to $1.3 million of the relocation costs. This would be, mused Milwaukee Sentinel reporter Amy Rinard in the June 30, 1988 edition, an opportunity to own a piece of Milwaukee history – a really big piece. Her story also noted the offer of sale was a legal formality mandated by the viaduct’s status as a registered historic landmark. City officials quoted in the paper spelled out the obvious: It would be impossible to move the bridge.

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