Every city has their grand landmarks and iconic structures. They most often posses a “magic charm” that gives people a sense of pride for where they belong. The preservation of these places sustains their integrity and value, all the while, allow future generations to experience the roots of a community and shape their identities.
In Racine, Wisconsin, the city streets are plentiful with historic buildings. “Cream brick celebrities” such as the Dr. Shoop Building trimmed with brownstone, and the Y.M.C.A. building trimmed with red terra cotta grace their corners with refined elegance. The modern concrete edifice of the Court House rises from the Earth with a sense of strength, solidity, and sovereignty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy of design also has a significant presence, with the Johnson Headquarters and Wingspread, just to start. These are only a footstep into discussing the attractive architecture that makes up Racine’s built-environment. They do not even touch the contemporary sites, such as the 2003 renovation of the Racine Art Museum, and cultural ones such as Yardarm’s.
Among all these splendid establishments is the Sixth Street Bridge. Like the places already mentioned, this bridge is a landmark that is simply unique and unequalled. Its condition, though, puts it in a state of compromising existence. Discussion on how to repair the bridge all the while preserve the extraordinary architectural features has challenged the community. With conversations going on for no less than two years, a resolution that provides a structurally secure bridge and an honest preservation of the ornament is absolute.
Also referred to as the “Concrete Arch Bridge,” it is located on Sixth Street just before it intersects with Kinzie Avenue. The opening of the bridge was on December 4, 1928. Charles Whitney was the architect. The Zandella Construction Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin built the marvel at a cost of $90,000 to the city. It replaced a former iron bridge from 1888. The length of the concrete structure is 179 feet long and 56 feet wide. The span of the arch is 131 feet and 6 inches from pier to pier.
An article from the Journal Times on December 3, 1928 gives credit to the various companies involved in construction. Of most interest here is the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company. Their work includes the glazed, relief panels and gargoyles. Eagles, bison, schooners, cornucopias, and cattle are just some of the motifs depicted in the terra cotta. The glazed surfaces feature light tones, including blue, green, yellow, brown, and white. Their application was also done with a pulsichrometer, or a pneumatic pump with attachments for several hoses to spray multiple glazes simultaneously. This is impressive, especially in multi-colored units such as the eagle and the bison. “ Masques” or coverings would have been used to block glazes from one another.
Furthermore, there are tiles that embellish the railings of the bridge (next to the sidewalks). The figures and motifs are geometric and brightly colored. Various glazes are used, including types with blue, green, turquoise, brown, red, and orange hues. Many of the colored glazes are opaque, with some translucent, and even crystalline such as with the turquoise. These gorgeous tiles are most likely from the Continental Faience and Tile Company of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although there is no written confirmation of this, the exposed clay body from chipped tiles, the types of glazes, and even style of designs are all consistent with other Continental tile installations.
The Journal Times acknowledged that its terra cotta and tile, “add a distinctive appearance to the bridge which spans the river in a graceful arch.” Its distinctiveness truly is what makes it so extraordinary. Its features would make even the most uninterested passerby stop for a glance. In other words, if the bridge was not enhanced with terra cotta and tile, it would not be important or worth saving.
As one crosses its sidewalk or passes under its arch rowing in a kayak on the Root River, the terra cotta and tile ornament can be appreciated. When carefully viewing the work, a charm erupts that is no different than a child captivated by a fictional story about magnificent beasts and warriors. The artistic narrative of the bridge ignites the imagination in all of us.
Furthermore, much ornament on buildings in the early Modern era aspired to express the ideals of America and what is American. The clay ornament on this bridge is no exception. Symbols were chosen, such as the eagles, bison, cow, and cornucopias, to express American values of independence, power, freedom, and abundance. Note there are also schooners, plows, and bundles of wheat representing the importance of the lake and agriculture. All the while, they are playful and fun (especially the grotesque dolphinesque figures).
Despite it being an enduring work of excellence and a symbol of Racine's values, the condition of the bridge demands repairs. To what extent the actual state of the bridge cannot support its intended use is a subject to be further explored and investigated. (EDIT: bridge condition is POOR, according to bridgehunter.com - see comment below).
The Sixth Street Bridge, much like Wingspread and the Racine Art Museum, forms the identities of the people living there. It is not only a landmark or a symbol of the West Sixth Street community, but it is their understanding of what a bridge is, and how a bridge can look, a reference for using imagination to create one’s built-environment, and a part of their community heritage. If this important structure were to be demolished, it would literally be demolishing their heritage and a part of the story of their neighborhood.
The proposed design provided by Ayers Associates (from 2016) aims to preserve units from the original bridge and reintroduce them into the new one. These efforts, though, would be miraculous. If the Boston Valley Terra Cotta Company could be hired to uninstall the units and reproduce them at their factory, perhaps then the city of Racine could achieve a new bridge with exact replicas of the original. The originals then could be appropriated in a local park, or housed at Racine Art Museum, or both? The design Ayers Associates planned, though, would exclude much of the original terra cotta and tile. It would not be the same bridge, but a salvaged version of the original.
Reshaping our environments is important, and necessary, for the inevitable growth of our cities. However, some places are to be preserved with a treasure-like passion. There are many factors to determine which sites they are, but perhaps the most powerful is the emotional.
Fortunately there are many voices, particularly from Preservation Racine, Inc., that stress the importance of this gem in Racine. Any updates on the project and its progress would be appreciated. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have more information to provide. Thank you.
Also, feel welcome to share the article and ask for permission if you would like to reuse the photographs.
BY: Ben Tyjeski
August 17, 2018
Not many bridges exist like this one around America. Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland, Ohio, is another Art Deco bridge with sculptural features. The winged “guardians of traffic” figures and the ornament are breathtaking. This bridge, however, features cast-stone instead of terra cotta.
Wisconsin has several bridges that were built with architectural terra cotta. In Menasha there is the Tayco Street Bridge. In Green Bay there is the Dousman Street Bridge Gatehouse. In Milwaukee there is also the Arch Bridge in Lake Park from 1892. All these bridges are gorgeous, but none of them compare to the integrity that the terra cotta expresses in form, surface, and symbolism as does the Racine arch bridge.
Further Reading and Sources:
Racine West Sixth Street Over Root River Bridge Replacement, Ayers Associate
"Preservation urged in Sixth Street bridge replacement" The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin. Cara Spoto. January 27, 2016.
"Some Facts about the City's Handsomest Concrete Bridge" The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin. December 3, 1928. Page 13.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!