Gothic Revival architecture, with its dramatic pointed arches, free-flowing lines, and deliberate irregularity, was a popular architectural style of the nineteenth century, particularly in England and North America. Standing in distinct contrast to the Greek Revival neoclassical style so prevalent in American governmental and civic buildings, the Gothic Revival form afforded architects and builders the freedom to contribute to the built environment in imaginative ways while referencing a centuries-old architectural tradition. Drawing inspiration from the Gothic architecture of Medieval Europe, builders adapted a variety of Gothic architectural flourishes to visually enhance not only dwellings and public buildings but also such structures as bridges, ranging from the sinuous lines of a pedestrian bridge in New York City’s Central Park to the awe-inspiring Gothic arch motif of the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

These are but two of the many distinctive American structures that have been documented and evaluated under the auspices of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), first established in 1933, and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), which came into being in 1969. These important programs are administered through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector and provide an invaluable resource to anyone interested in historic architecture, engineering, and design in the United States and its territories.Through an examination of the compiled HAER data of four notable American bridges, all of which employ Gothic architectural elements in various degrees, one may better appreciate not only the versatility of the form but also the powerful design punch inherent in the Gothic form itself. Yet beyond the graceful artistry that animates these structures, each bridge must also perform a very utilitarian function, one as old as humanity itself – to get to the other side. Whether to cross a body of water or a rocky escarpment, physical conveyances must first, above all else, be strong enough to fulfill their task; only then can the complimentary factor of form be more fully considered by its designer.

The four American bridges, drawing upon analyses culled from the digital resources of the Library of Congress’s exhaustive digital collection, will hopefully better illustrate the myriad ways in which designers and engineers placed a distinctive architectural stamp on their work by employing a classic architectural style that fully embraces a flair for the dramatic – Gothic Revival.

The nineteenth century Gothic Revival style belonged to a much larger movement called Picturesque, which also included landscape gardening. It is fitting, then, to first examine a work by the designer, Calvert Vaux, who, together with the renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, was awarded the commission to design New York’s Central Park. A British architect who began working in the United States in the 1850s, Calvert Vaux relied upon the expertise of another Englishman, Jacob Wrey Mould, who served as his chief draftsman and later became the sole designer of several of the park’s cast-iron structures.[1] Forty-six bridges and arches were built in the park between 1859 and 1864, including this graceful bridge, Central Park Bridge No. 28, which traverses the bridal path south of the tennis courts at the northwest edge of the park.052012_1422_GOTHICARCHI1.png

The abutments of the bridge seem to grow like fantastic vines from the gently rolling grounds of Olmstead’s landscaping, while artful usage of additional Gothic elements contributes to an elegant yet rather whimsical design.

The decorative casting of Gothic motifs in spandrel reflects a designer comfortable with reinterpreting the Gothic form in imaginative ways, as does the striking repetition of the cusped arch in the bridge’s cast-iron balustrade.

051812_0252_GOTHICARCHI3.pngA nineteenth century innovation, cast iron was particularly well-suited for the casting of Central Park’s bridges. Not only was it an economical process, cast iron facilitated a more expressive means of design. This was accomplished by incorporating phosphorus into the metal alloy used in casting, a process that “rendered the metal particularly fluid. Hence, the details, which are drawn from nature and natural forms but do not replicate specific plants, are especially crisp and fine.”[2] Architectural elements for Central Park’s Bridge No. 28 were cast in an off-site foundry, then assembled onsite. With dozens of bridges and arches to design and construct, this process was repeated by Calvert Vaux and his team of skilled draftsmen many times over before the park’s completion.

Turning from the graceful to the grounded, Hemlock Bridge, which spans Maple Spring Brook in Acadia National Park in Hancock County, Maine, is a stately granite structure featuring a central Gothic arch. And though it looks as if it might have provided medieval pilgrims an easier passage to Canterbury, it is a Yankee construction through and through.

Designed by New York architect William Welles Bosworth, Hemlock Bridge was completed in 1924 as one of eight stone bridges on the West Sargent Mountain Road and is a part of the “Around-the-Mountain” carriage road loop planned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., that encircles the central mountains of Acadia National Park.[3] In answer to the question of why the builder decided upon a Gothic arch for this locatio052012_1422_GOTHICARCHI4.pngn, historians for the Historic American Engineering Record, who completed a study of the park’s roads and bridges in 1995, wrote, “The pointed arch design was evidently adopted as appropriate for the surrounding dense hemlock forest which lends the bridge its name.”[4]

After difficulties arose in locating suitable granite facing stone on site, and the option of utilizing concrete masonry as a cost savings measure was rejected by Rockefeller out of his concern that the bridge would look too artificial, changes were made to the bridge design, including the elimination of two, small blind arch elements and the use of solid spandrels filled with rock and broken stone.[5] The bridge was completed late and over budget, but park visitors traversing the heavily wooded Maple Spring Trail that passes beneath it would likely find themselves in agreement with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who decided that such an elegant structure was well worth the price.

051812_0252_GOTHICARCHI5.pngWinchester Bridge, also known as the Robert A. Booth Bridge, provides yet another example of the arresting use of Gothic-inspired design elements in an American bridge. Winchester Bridge spans the 800-foot-wide North Umpqua River channel on the Pacific Highway in Douglas County, Oregon. Constructed from 1922 to 1924, it was the longest reinforced-concrete ribbed deck arch bridge to be designed by Conde B. McCullough in the 1920s. It is unique among all of his other deck arch bridges in its strong Tudor and Gothic treatment of spandrel columns, curtain walls, and pedestrian lookouts.[6]  Mr. McCullough employed a long series of spans in his bridge design, reflecting his view that a reinforced-concrete arch should be favored in bridge design because of the “quiet, simple dignity of its lines.”[7]

030712_2341_GOTHICARCHI6.pngMcCullough’s choice of reinforced-concrete over the more traditional steel truss design was primarily based on economic considerations, in that, while reinforced-concrete bridges were more expensive to construct, they were less expensive over the long run due to reduced maintenance costs. Ironically, one of the most critical and costly issues facing the bridge’s continued existence was its lack of maintenance.

In a 1990 assessment of the bridge, conducted as a part of the Oregon Historic Bridge Recording Project in conjunction with HABS/HAER and the Oregon Department of Transportation, it was reported that maintenance of the bridge had been sporadic at best since its construction. Early on there were concerns with water pooling on the span’s deck, which were alleviated through the installation of weep holes. Special paint for the railings and precast sections of the bridge was needed to reduce the spalling and cracking of the concrete brought about by the ceaseless freeze and thaw cycles common in western Oregon. Faulty expansion joints went unrepaired until after the Great Depression, which caused significant deterioration of the bridge decking along with concrete erosion of the arcs. A 1986 inspection indicated a fifty to one hundred percent loss of lower rebar in some beams, a condition exacerbated by the rebar having been installed too close to the surface during the bridge’s construction.[8]

Because of the dedicated efforts of preservationists, doubtless inspired by McCullough’s artful use of Gothic design, this bridge was saved from demolition.[9] Successfully rehabilitated in 2008, the restoration project received national recognition, with its contractors winning the prestigious 2008 AON Build America Award by the Associated General Contractors of America.[10]

The last in this series of notable American bridges with Gothic architectural elements is yet another Oregonian bridge, the magnificent St. Johns Bridge, spanning the Willamette River on U.S. Highway 30 in Portland, Oregon. The St. Johns Bridge was constructed between 1929 to 1931 and is a steel cable suspension bridge with reinforced-concrete towers and piers. Designed by the firm of Robinson & Steinman in New York City, the St. Johns Bridge is an incomparable melding of aestheticism and early twentieth century engineering. The visual impact of the Gothic inspired towers is simply breathtaking, and indeed, it has often been described as one of the world’s most beautiful bridges.[11]

052012_1422_GOTHICARCHI7.pngBeyond its appearance, the bridge is also significant for its many innovations in bridge design. HAER historian Lola Bennett notes that at the time it was built it had the highest reinforced concrete rigid-frame piers in the world. Its construction also marked the first use of lofty, main steel towers without conventional diagonal bracing. Many other new techniques were employed during its construction, such as the use of pre-stressed galvanized rope strands instead of parallel wire cables – this had only been done once before, and it was the first time reinforced concrete pedestal piles were used for an anchorage foundation.[12] Most important for Oregonian bragging rights, however, was the fact that the St. Johns Bridge, at the time of its completion, was the highest long span of any suspension bridge west of Detroit.

Even a brief look at a mere handful of the many thousands of structures documented and evaluated through the HABS and HAER programs can prove to be a font of information – useful not only to historians but also to engineers, designers, architects, artists, preservationists, students, writers, basically anyone who yields to the need to know and takes the initiative to discover. For the purposes of this short essay, the use of Gothic architectural elements in American bridges provided the inspiration to dig, and the Historic American Engineering Record provided the bone, so to speak.

[1]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number HAER NY,31-NEYO,153C-.
[2]. Ibid.
[3]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number HAER ME,5-NORHA.V,3-.
[4]. Ibid.
[5]. Ibid.
[6]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number HAER ORE,10-WINC,1-.
[7]. Ibid.
[8]. Ibid.
[9]. Bridgehunter website,
[10]. Hamilton Construction Company website,
[11]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number HAER ORE,26-PORT,13-.
[12]. Ibid.

© 2014, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.


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