What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition I

I was in the midst of trying to understand what is a viaduct when I traveled to Bethlehem, PA, with my family. One of our activities was to explore the bridges (see also Cage-free Bridges). As we walked the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, my initial reaction was “now here is a viaduct.” I hadn’t reached the point of developing a semi-clear definition for viaduct but looking at the flat roadbed supported by multiple arches over the floodplain, viaduct seemed the most appropriate word for the structure.

As we kept walking, it turned out that the viaduct was only a portion of the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. In fact, it would be more appropriately called the Hill-to-Hill-to-Hill-to-Hill Bridge. There are two approaches to the main span on the south end and three on the north end, including the viaduct and one approach permanently closed to through traffic. When the bridge was built in 1924, there were a total of seven approaches at various points along the main span. With so many components, this structure brings me back to the question of how many is one bridge?

Unlike when I asked this question of the 30th and 31st Street bridges in Pittsburgh, here the main bridge, the intersecting viaduct, and the numerous connections seem to be considered one bridge. They are together called the Hill-to-Hill Bridge while the structure in Pittsburgh has three distinct names (including River Avenue Ramp). Perhaps the deciding factor in whether it is one or more bridges is the original intent. The Hill-to-Hill Bridge was designed as a multifaceted structure whereas the 30th and 31st Street bridges were developed independently.

The best indication of the original intent seems to be the name. The Hill-to-Hill Bridge has a single name whereas the 30th and 31st Street bridges have separate names. The other examples I looked at in 2012 were the Veterans Bridge (Pittsburgh), the Fort Duquesne Bridge (Pittsburgh), and what I called the Jubilee Bridge (London).

The Veterans Bridge joins three approaches into one bridge, all under a single name. Therefore, it is one bridge, not three.

The pedestrian walkway of the Fort Duquesne Bridge was built decades after the vehicular portion but does not have a separate name. Therefore, it is one bridge, not two.

What I called the Jubilee Bridge (despite the photo I took at the time of the dedication plaque stating otherwise) is actually called the Golden Jubilee Bridges. While these bridges share the support structure of the underground’s Hungerford Bridge due to concerns about unexploded WWII bombs in the area, they have separate names. Therefore, it is three bridges, not one nor two.

Other posts in this series:

What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition I (July 18, 2012)

What is a Bridge? Pittsburgh Edition II (July 27, 2012)

What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition I (April 18, 2013)

What is a Bridge? Chicago Edition II (February 1, 2020)

What is a Bridge? Bethlehem Edition II (July 15, 2020)

Judging Buildings

When I first saw this building from a distance, its rooftop ornamentation made it stand out from its surroundings. I didn’t have time to investigate on that trip, but my curiosity was peaked. I built up a story about the long history of this building that I surmised started out as a produce terminal in the 19th Century.

Six years later, I walked past the building on my way to my hotel. I was surprised to see it was a public library. It seemed unusual for a former marketplace to be converted to a library. As soon as I checked-in, I hurried back over to explore this unique building.

Despite entering immediately into a narrow, angular, white hallway, I held onto my belief that it was an old building. The hallway felt odd in that narrative, but I quickly forgot that feeling once I emerged into the main lobby with its high ceiling and sparkling white marble floors, counters, and walls. I found a directory and decided to make my way to the map room several floors above. This “room” turned out to be a corner in an open floor plan. The corner featured one row of computers and a full-service counter. Unable to browse a collection of maps, I made up a research question and asked the staff if they had maps to help. While one librarian looked in the back room for hard copy maps and another showed me their digital resources, our conversation ranged from how awesome maps are to the history of the building.

I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that the library was built in the 1990s. The rooftop sculptures of owls stand out so much in part because they were designed for a taller structure; the final floor of the library was cut from the project due to the financial crisis. I suggested it was nice that the designers included such details as the sculptures and marble countertops. The librarian pointed out that the marble was faux and did nothing to alleviate the industrial feel of the building.

Looking again, beyond the cleanliness and sparkle of the space, I noticed the low ceilings and uniform bright white light throughout the open floor plan. I also noticed the distortion of the wooden escalator enclosure. The proportions would have been better balanced if the enclosure reached twice as high to the next floor.

This discussion with the librarian made me question my default reactions to the space. My initial reaction of excitement for a unique example of adaptive reuse changed to awe when I thought that a new building, open to the public, incorporated expensive historical material. But this reaction did not match reality any more than the first. Both assumptions blinded me to the cramped spaces with migraine inducing lighting. This experience also taught me that it isn’t just the material that matters. Incorporating the materials, whether faux or real, while leaving out the related historic design elements such as natural lighting and high ceilings does not lead to a better building.

I came away with a better appreciation for my neighborhood library branch that combines modern materials (such as curtain wall windows and bamboo flooring) with thoughtful design. From the outside, I cringe at the modern angular look, but inside it is a warm and welcoming space. Apparently, the lesson of never judging a book by its cover applies to buildings, too. Never judge a building by its facade.

Ringing the Bells

A deep, full-bodied gong expanded through the small basement of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, PA, after the docent tapped the clapper against the replica Liberty Bell. Depending on the source, the US government commissioned 53 or 57 replica Liberty Bells from a French company in the 1950s. One was kept in France and the rest were distributed to each of the US states and territories. Most were put on display somewhere in the State Capitals. Pennsylvania was one of the exceptions.

During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell and other bells from Philadelphia were hidden in the Zion Reformed Church’s basement in Allentown to protect them from the British troops. Now the basement is a museum to the Liberty Bell, featuring Pennsylvania’s replica bell along with artifacts from the Revolutionary War. The replica bell is whole with the famous crack depicted by a line drawn with a Sharpie marker. As a result, there isn’t the concern that ringing the bell will worsen the crack and perhaps split the bell in two as there is with the original. Still the docent must tap the bell very gently in demonstrations as it was designed to be heard 20 miles away. In the small basement, the full sound could cause auditory damage.

Most days in Pittsburgh, I can hear the neighborhood Catholic church bell chime the hours. Under the right weather conditions, I can hear a church bell from another neighborhood. The Catholic church is within a mile of my house. The other church is up to 2 miles away. Though I don’t subscribe to any organized religion, hearing these bells gives me a feeling that I am part of a community. The bells of the Allegheny County Courthouse downtown inspire a similar feeling of belonging when they ring at noon and 5:00 pm. These sounds create a shared experience between me and all the other people within earshot of the ringing bell.

The difference in capacity of the Liberty Bell and the bell of the local Catholic church reflects the style of living at the time they were established. In the days of the Liberty Bell, most of the country was agrarian with people spread out on farms often at least 20 miles away from the nearest town or hamlet. Fast forward to the 1910s, when the local Catholic church was established in a growing, dense urban environment. Most parishioners lived in the same neighborhood as their church, not more than a mile or two away. Today, in post-suburbanization US, people live in different neighborhoods or even towns from where they worship or work. In such a world, there isn’t one civic or religious institution that everyone within earshot subscribes to. I am glad to live in a neighborhood where there still is a bell to remind us every so often to look up from our digital devices to see and hear the world immediately in front of us.

Moral Economics

The strongest impression from my last trip to Cardiff was the feeling that it is morally wrong to invest heavily in touristy neighborhoods while skipping the neighborhoods of the residents. Tourists may provide a bigger return per touch point, but residents have many more touch points (including voting). Perhaps I have become jaded since that trip, but I now accept that economics and morals rarely work together.

Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood is trying a different approach to see if economic investment can be leveraged for the greater good. Uptown experienced disinvestment and decay for decades, despite being located between and within walking distance of Oakland and downtown, two of the largest economic engines in the state. Not to mention the main roads connecting these prosperous and growing areas run directly through Uptown. Zipping down Fifth Avenue from Oakland to downtown, it is easy to overlook or ignore the ruined home foundations turning back to forest, the wide-spread vacant lots and parking lots, and the intricate architectural details on the remaining old structures.

Former Rialto Theatre

The bland brick and glass facade on Fifth Avenue identifies this building as another mid-century warehouse. Turning the corner, the decorative parapet wall and bricked over arched opening tell the story of an older, more interesting building.

One such structure was one of the many movie theaters dotting the city in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the adjacent buildings were demolished, and an addition was added to the theater to turn it into a storeroom. After a time as a plasma center in the 1980s and 1990s, the building sat vacant and dusty for many years. Now, it is undergoing renovations for its next life. This is just one of the many signs that investment is coming to Uptown.

The community of Uptown that held on through the economically rough times prepared for this moment. In collaboration with many partners, including local institutions such as Duquesne University and UPMC Mercy as well as the City of Pittsburgh, the community created a new neighborhood plan. This designated Uptown and West Oakland as an EcoInnovation District. One of the first actions from this plan developed a new zoning district, the first progressive zoning district in Pittsburgh. The goal of the plan and the zoning district is to leverage the coming economic investment to create an inclusive and environmentally sustainable neighborhood.

It will be interesting to watch this neighborhood over the next few years to see if the plans are successful at introducing some moral components to the economic investment.

Border Crossing

With summer full upon us, I have pulled out all my summer straw hats. One I picked up as an emergency hat. I’ve squished it into a suitcase, sat on it, and abused it in other fashions for years, but it’s still a great plain soft straw hat. Another one is a broad brim straw hat with a plain black band I acquired in Old Town Sacramento to complete my 1860s costume. It’s a great hat, but without the hat pin, it blows off at the slightest provocation. The cream of the crop is a fine two-toned, straw hat with green and grey cords, peach-colored flowers, and an extra wide brim. This one came from Tijuana, Mexico.

I was fifteen or sixteen when my parents took me across the border for a day trip in Tijuana. My memory of this trip is fuzzy, but punctuated with sharp images of intense emotion. I vaguely remember booths and lots of lanes of cars, even by California standards, for crossing south, but lots of lines of people for crossing north. While we drove down, we had to leave our car somewhere along the border. All the tourists were funneled on foot onto the main drag, which was glitzy enough to rival Las Vegas. Shop owners stood on the sidewalk outside their stores to entice the US currency from our pocket to theirs.

I squinted at the glare and cringed at the solicitous fawning. After we visited several shops, my Dad asked a proprietor where he could find a CD of a particular kind of music. The proprietor gave us directions to a shop several blocks away from the main road. As soon as we stepped into the first side street, all the glitz and glamour vanished. Instead, we found blocks of small, plain adobe or stucco houses. The contrast turned my stomach.

The honest plainness of these blocks soothed my eyes, while throwing into sharp relief the fashionable begging of the tourist trap we temporarily left. I was surprised we were given directions that went outside the trap. I wondered how many tourists crossed that invisible line.

Though most of these buildings looked the same, we were able to locate the music shop without incident. My Dad found what he wanted and we went back the way we came. Not long after we returned to the border to cross back to the US.

We had to stay in a waiting area either for our car or for our turn to go through the border crossing. While there, my Mom had me try on hats for sale at a small kiosk. I suspect this was in part to distract me from the physical reaction I was having to the contrasts we saw and in part to encourage me to get a souvenir from this excursion. Having a weakness for hats, I ended up with a beautifully-crafted straw hat that I still wear for special summer occasions.