A century ago, it functioned as an elegant main entrance to Como Regional Park, but in recent decades, the footbridge near the Historic Streetcar Station more closely resembled a crumbling wreck.
Although listed on the National Registry of Historic places, portions of the bridge had fallen away or been removed, small trees grew on its deck, and it was fenced off to protect passersby.
Happily, looks proved to be somewhat deceiving.
The City of St. Paul’s initial goals for the bridge, which lies just northeast of the Horton Avenue and Lexington Parkway intersection, were modest. The plan was to use a combination of federal and local funding to stabilize what remained so that it was safe to walk or bike under, but not over. The bridge was to be considered a ruin, valued for its historical significance and part of an interpretive site, tied in with the streetcar station.
“Based on the appearance of the structure, we were under the impression that, if we didn’t do anything, the bridge would eventually collapse under its own weight,” said Don Varney, a landscape architect with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the project manager.
However, a subsequent engineering analysis revealed the concrete in the key structural elements was strong, and a complete renovation proved possible to do within the existing budget.
“I think the end result is going to be a lot more satisfying for everybody,” Varney said.
Way back in 1898, the St. Paul City Railway Co. was given permission to extend its Como-Harriet streetcar line through Como Park. In exchange, the company agreed to provide various amenities, including two bridges over the tracks. The footbridge opened in 1904 and gave visitors disembarking at the new station a means of safely crossing into the park.
A sister bridge, just to the west, was constructed to handle Lexington Parkway traffic— mostly horse-drawn initially—and is still in use today.
The bridges, by noted Minneapolis builder William S. Hewett, were among the earliest in Minnesota to be constructed of concrete reinforced with metal and the most interesting feature of the pedestrian bridge is said to be the steel arch ribs that help support it.
Its Classic Revival architectural style was common to park bridges of the era and suitable for a major entrance to the park. The railings that were a key feature of that design are gone, but they can be recreated using the original plans, Varney said.
When the streetcar era in St. Paul ended in 1953, the footbridge no longer had an essential role to play. By the time the structure received the historic designation in 1989, it was basically abandoned and all but forgotten by the general public.
In 2001, the streetcar station was restored and in 2007 the footbridge got its chance. The City of St. Paul applied for and was awarded a $700,000 grant by the Federal Highway Administration to preserve what was left, a remnant of transportation history. The city itself provided another $450,000 through bonding and planning moved ahead.
The finding that the bridge was fundamentally sound sent the project back to the drawing board in some respects and there still are details to be worked out, Varney said. For instance, the slopes leading up to and away from the bridge are steeper than would be allowed by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But he is optimistic that any problems can be resolved and hopeful that the project will go out for bids this spring, with construction beginning in summer.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Cultural Resources unit is reviewing the project on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration, in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office. Kristen Zschomler, Cultural Resources supervisor, told the Park Bugle that her group had endorsed the original plan for stabilizing the footbridge and was in the process of writing an updated assessment.
“However, I don’t anticipate any issues getting in the way,” she said. “And this is going to be a much better outcome than what was originally envisioned.”
Roger Bergerson is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.