Imagine you are a farmer and you own some cattle that are a special breed because they have been in your local community for generations. These are healthy, beautiful cows but they do not produce as much milk as more robust ones. In spite of this, you continue to take care of these cows as they are the last of their kind. You know that if they were to be slaughtered, you would lose something special about the place you are from. No more would there be a cow breed unique to home.
This was the message that Dr. Siegfried Farnon shared with his young and eager apprentice James Herriot in PBS’s Masterpiece series, “All Creatures Great & Small” in 2020. In underscoring the economic role that livestock serves, he empowered the value of caring for unique and special species as a means of preserving local culture. This understanding of place and appreciation for character applies to other matters in life, in addition to the cows. A special species of flowers, a wild animal near extinction, a type of dress, a celebratory dance, or even a type of architecture unique to your place, all matter.
When the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on the brink of collapse due to an unexpected fire on April 15, 2019, the country of France as well as the world was devastated. France was also empowered with the duty to restore their beloved landmark. In their effort to bring back the Notre Dame, they did not simply strive for a likeness, but they diligently aimed to rebuild the damaged parts in the way it was built in the Middle Ages. As the NOVA series, “Saving Notre Dame” reveals, engineers employed the best technology possible to identify the same timber and stone that was original to the structure. Process was equally important to the product. Authenticity to the highest level was their standard and it guided their decisions without hesitation.
If something similar were to happen in the United States, would we show the same commitment to being authentic?
It’s a tough and perhaps unfair question because there is nothing like Notre Dame in the United States. Though our commitment to national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, I'd hope, is a no-brainer. Local landmarks are another subject, but they too tell the story of the Nation. On a national scale, small local sites may appear unimportant. But digging deeper into their history, their significance and role in the American narrative can quickly become more and more compelling.
Recognizing these places is not always so apparent. Even in places like Racine, Wisconsin, where its community is largely dedicated to celebrating its local history, they too experience the struggle to preserve their unique and special characteristics.
For five years now a red flag had been raised regarding the West Sixth Street Bridge in Racine, Wisconsin. It was not your usual bridge. When it was constructed in 1928, the mayor was criticized for allowing such an expensive and ornamental bridge to be created and it was mocked as “Armstrong’s Folly.” In spite of such comments, the bridge was built as a symbol of Racine’s progress as an urban, metropolitan center. It was a handsome structure. Eagles with wings spread open represent Racine as an American city and its triumph over the wild frontier. Pioneering trades such as a tall ship, a plow, wheat, and cabbage reminded future generations of what created the city. All this decoration was modeled by hand in architectural terra cotta from Chicago and art tile from South Milwaukee. There was also a set of bronze light posts and plates that adorned the bridge. What could have been a plain, concrete arch bridge was instead a grand work of Americana, celebrating the urban progress of Racine.
The West Sixth Street Bridge was not the Notre Dame of Paris, but it was a landmark unlike any other in the country. It was one of a kind, its own breed, making the charm of Racine all the more special. As of this year, 2021, it will be gone; soon to be replaced by something that will be “sympathetic” to what it was originally. “They just don’t make them like they used to” will probably be said, and it will not be true. These types of bridges were rarely made, if any, like this one.
Certainly the bridge was not “perfect.” Its story also narrated the ideals of colonialism and the exploitation of land. It continued the narrative of “manifest destiny” in which the structure claimed Racine as neither Native American nor French, but inevitably American. Its construction was also after WWI when nationalism was strong. Such infrastructure was created to further impose the idea this land was exclusively America's domain.
Does this mean its history is offensive? Themes about race were present, but it was subtle and more concerned with the influence of the government, national identity, and local history. It is ironic though when considering the effort to save statues that represent American history and their overt racism. Large portions of the communities no longer wish to see them in public, but the outcry to keep them as they are also piques national attention. This bridge has a story that is significantly more interesting as piece of Americana and is hardly offensive in comparison to these statues, but the attention it gets remains local and will go unnoticed by many.
Regardless, the bridge is about to be demolished. Even with its exclusive history, many people of Racine could see the bridge as something simply beautiful. The themes represented did not make much sense necessarily - with the winged dolphin spouts, eagles, and Viking figures, but it was colorful and entertaining.
Recreating this bridge authentically today is possible. The trades and technology are active. And to be fair, Racine is also a community that generally has a strong support for preservation and local history. However, authenticity has a price tag. And in competing with the larger American societal values where quick-turnarounds and cheapness are prioritized, the genuine restoration or replacement of this bridge would be a miracle.
But as the saying goes, “haste makes waste.” And in the haste to clean up and build anew, the efforts of our ancestors become rubble.
This reflection may appear to be a romanticization of structures from the past, and certainly that sentiment is present, but the truth is that this bridge was special. Nothing can replace the iconic Notre Dame. Nothing can replace a local species of cow that is unique to a family of farms. Nothing like this bridge, not even Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland, can replace the unique features of this bridge. All structures, to some degree, express the history of the community. But not all structures are the “Concrete Arch Bridge” from Racine.
As times goes, we add, cut, and edit the story of place, deciding which direction the narrative goes. Unfortunately, the bridge will soon be gone. It seems that the new design for the replacement has positive outcomes, such as its considerations of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, but its authenticity to the design and handmade craft of the structure concern me. What will be preserved, to me, remains a mystery. The Sixth Street Bridge is beginning a new chapter. Will its original features be a mere memory? I want to be optimistic, but we will see what happens.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest by Ben Tyjeski.