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Our bridge deserves better

Make right choices in restoration

Forty years ago on a rainy Sunday afternoon, several hundred people gathered along the Green River to dedicate the opening of Greenfield’s New Pumping Station Bridge. Public works dedications are not unusual but this one was special.

Recorder staffer, Alvin Oickle, wrote about the event:

“This wasn’t an ordinary bridge nor was it the kind of official ceremony anyone is likely to have attended ever before. This was a group of people gathered to celebrate the completion of a new bridge: but the bridge looked like something that could have been constructed a century before, and the ceremony was a testimonial to the human spirit.”

There is an inspirational story to be remembered and retold about scores of people who came together in response to a senseless act of destruction that took away a piece of Greenfield’s heritage — a 100-year-old covered bridge burned to ashes and char on Halloween in 1969. That story was one of dedication, skill and accomplishment, but mostly one of a strong conviction to honor other New Englanders, past and present, and their remarkable traditions.

Mr. Oickle noted that reactions of shame and fear that “nothing may be sacred anymore” motivated that group of individuals to build not a generic steel and concrete structure but one with character employing unique skills and natural materials as an expression of community pride.

Donations and volunteer labor would provide the necessary resources to recreate the single span wooden structure that had once stood proud. The new bridge would borrow from the past by replicating the historic truss system and other finishes common to covered bridges and also modifying as necessary to meet the various standards for contemporary vehicle size and loads.

The process moved slowly taking two years to assemble the right people and the right materials before even beginning the construction.

If you had traveled to the Pumping Station on a Saturday afternoon 40 years ago, you would have seen dozens of workers skillfully cutting and assembling enormous Western Douglas Fir timbers into Howe trusses or applying vertical board siding or nailing wood shingles on the roof. In fact, the entire 94-foot-long structure was erected on the east bank of the river before being lifted several inches and placed on oak rollers. After 38 weeks under construction, the bridge was slowly winched across temporary steel beams spanning the river and lowered firmly into place on the original abutments.

Today, Greenfield finds itself in a dishearteningly familiar situation following another disaster. This time, Tropical Storm Irene in late August 2011 swelled the normally gentle Green River beyond its embankments. The flooding undermined the supporting abutment on the east bank leaving the bridge suspended precariously above the water and battered the surroundings beyond recognition.

However, even with the dramatic dislocation, the bridge remains intact and substantially sound, although showing evidence of structural and cosmetic damage that needs to be addressed.

Initial deliberations by town decision -makers considered total demolition but fortunately that option was rejected in favor of a rehabilitation effort. The Department of Public Works received authorization to prepare engineering drawings that are now public.

This story has personal meaning because I was the architect who drew the design perspective as it appeared in The Recorder on Dec. 8, 1969, and, along with engineer David Bartlett, prepared the construction drawings and participated in most of the weekend building activities.

Thoughts of an accurate restoration to return the bridge and site to original design conditions were dispelled after I recently visited the damaged area and examined the solutions proposed on the engineering drawings.

The effect of the surging water was truly devastating. The Green River had to be brought back to its natural course requiring enormous amounts of earthwork that is now substantially completed. However, the signs for the next stage of repair to the bridge and site are discouraging.

Let me share a few comments.

The Pumping Station Bridge deserves more than just a “fixing.” Remedial solutions that only aim to stabilize grounds and structures too often overlook the relevance of context and significance of history.

If you remember the former site you will recall an informal setting of perimeter woodlands surrounding a modest-sized pond, a clearing bisected by a winding, partly shaded, country road and a small but popular swimming area — a natural landscape where people gathered for enjoyment.

The engineering solution apparently envisions an alternative and harsher scenario — more expansive open space bereft of tree cover and shade, suburban-like lawn as ground cover on a flat ground plane, a rip-rap of sharp-edged stone dumped on the embankments and a variety of the usual highway concrete hardscapes and metal fencing.

The proposed bridge changes are equally dismissive of a richer design. The exterior pedestrian deck that once protected people from vehicular traffic and provided a different vista to enjoy the scenic dam and swimming area below is slated to be removed. Each exposed rafter “tail” extending slightly beyond the roof cover designed to collectively “lighten” a deep roof overhang has already been severed and discarded.

Any negativity found in this “My Turn” is not intended to disparage efforts to date or the people making difficult decisions with limited resources. The challenge now is to alert readers and ask them to summon deeply-held convictions, voice pride in their community and collectively urge the town to restore the “sense of place” that once was.

There are few images with historical, cultural and visual connotations found on the New England countryside that better exemplify the aspirations of our predecessors more than covered bridges — timeless contributions to our landscape and our humanity. It serves all of us to be frequently reminded that what we have and cherish today is the result of choices made by those who came before us.

Choices matter.

Mr. Oickle noted: “Thirty-eight weekends later, they all met on the long, narrow, wooden bridge they had built over the Green River and drank T. J. Strahan’s plain punch and listened to some people tell them what they had done.”

“This is people working together,” said Vincent Caroleo of the state Department of Commerce. “I hope the spirit of this stays with you always.”

I, too, hope that the spirit stays with us always.

Donald F. Williams is an architect in Greenfield.

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