Say Goodbye to the Riverside-Figueroa Bridge
September 23, 2011 § 59 Comments
It’s not the greatest of the Los Angeles River’s historic bridges. The L-shaped Riverside Drive Bridge that connects Elysian Valley with Cypress Park is one of at least five Riverside Drive Bridges in Los Angeles… so it’s commonly called the Riverside-Figueroa Bridge. It’s sort of a patchwork bridge, with parts from 1928-1929, 1930s and 1950s. And it’s going to be demolished… very soon.
I knew it was coming, but just this week I spotted signs saying “BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION AUG 2011 to DEC 2015 – INFORMATION 213-978-0333. A bit further on, there were construction trucks parked on the bridge and some construction workers huddled, discussing and pointing.
At this point I feel sad for this nice old bridge… so I am going to try to faithfully record its history here. Then perhaps in a future post, I will explain some of the features of the new bridge replacing it (you can get some sense for the new bridge from this earlier Confluence Park diagram.)
I am disappointed to see it go. It’s a designated L.A. City Historic Cultural Landmark (No. 908), but, it’s one of the lesser historic bridges, so, at this point, I am pretty much resigned to see it go. There are much better bridges under great threat of demolition, including 6th Street and North Spring Street, and the city of Los Angeles’ bridge program has others on its lists (for example.)
A huge thanks to my photographer friend Osceola Refetoff, who, at my urging, has done quite a bit of photo-documentation of this bridge… even though he didn’t find it all that photogenic. I told him to get the photos now, because the bridge wouldn’t be around much longer.
The Riverside Drive Bridge is actually a couple of bridges. First there’s a span over the L.A. River. Second there’s what’s called a “sidehill viaduct” – which runs parallel to the river on the west bank – the downstream tip of Elysian Valley. Also, in a sense, there’s a third bridge which is the approach ramp from the east, which extends over Avenue 19.
If the bridge is demolished this year, it will be the third time it’s been demolished in 85 years. An early bridge at this site, called the Dayton Avenue Bridge was built in 1903, and was demolished in 1927. Dayton Avenue was later re-named North Figueroa Street.
The first modern concrete bridge at the site began construction in 1927 and was completed in 1928. Here’s a photo of Dayton Avenue Bridge, nearing completion:
And here it is completed:
A November 23rd, 1927, L.A. Times article related that local merchants were unhappy with the nearly-complete bridge because “no provision has been made for traffic at the west approach.” The Riverside Drive approach, really a connected second bridge – that sidehill viaduct I mentioned was constructed in 1929. The sidehill viaduct combines with the river span to form the basic L-shape that’s present as I write this.
Here’s a photo of the completed project, then called the Riverside Drive-Dayton Avenue Bridge.
I think that the 1929 bridge was very handsome. From there it begins to go downhill.
In November 1937, a 1,500,000-ton landslide slams down from the Elysian Park hillside on the Riverside Drive sidehill viaduct.
The L.A. Times reports that the avalanche scene attracted more than 100,000 visitors per day, some of whom rode the train from the east coast to see the dramatic sight. The “Elysian Park slide” wrecks the sidehill portion of Riverside Drive in November 1937 and it takes city crews more than a year to clear and repair. Riverside Drive re-opens in February 1939.
In the intervening year, 1938, the city experiences hugely destructive flooding. Floods wash out the railroad bridge immediately downstream from Dayton Avenue. City leaders call in the federal Army Corps of Engineers to fix the flooding problem. They begin to line the river in concrete… and that nice ten-year-old Dayton Avenue Bridge is, well, in the way.
I confess that I don’t entirely understand the geometry here. The L.A. River-Arroyo Seco confluence area is described as “one of the most difficult bends in the river” (L.A. Times 10 December 1939.) The “new alignment” of the Dayton Avenue bridge is needed for straightening and reinforcing the river. As far as I can tell, the east (Cypress Park) approach remains intact, and the west (Elysian Park) approach moves downstream somewhat… but not that much… perhaps to create a shorter span across the river? Perhaps to move the east abutment further east?
Here’s a diagram from the Los Angeles Times article:
To make way for the new bridge, the old one is demolished on May 25th, 1939.
The new Riverside Drive bridge is built, by the Army Corps of Engineers. Though the deck of the bridge retains more-or-less the character of the earlier bridge, the graceful concrete arch below is replaced by a steel truss span.
Here’s the nearly completed bridge in an L.A. Times drawing by Charles H. Owens:
You may still be able to view those steel trusses today. Here’s a 2011 photograph from more-or-less the same angle as the 1939 illustration:
And here’s a closer shot from inside the metal truss:
So, for us bridge geeks, it’s actually interesting to read the difference between the phases of construction.
There are places under the bridge where the arches of the 1929 viaduct are still intact:
And there are places in bridge deck and railing where the different eras are visible. Here’s a shot of the upstream sidewalk as it exists today, walking from Cypress to Elysian:
It’s a bit subtle, but on the left side, the sidewalk is a little darker than it is on the right. The sidewalk on right dates from 1928-1929. The sidewalk on the left dates from the late 1930s. The railing is slightly different, too. The line of the railing takes a jog in the middle of this photo, where the closest lamppost is. The foreground railing on the right dates from the 20s, beyond the lamppost the railing is from the 1939.
Here’s a close-up of the jog in the middle of the prior picture.
On the right is the 1928-29 railing. On the left is the base of the lighting standard, which is the beginning of the 1939 railing.
In the middle of the photo is the crack where the two projects abut each other.
There are also somewhat subtle differences in the railing. It’s the same basic concrete railing, with a series of sort of elongated vertical rectangular holes, with half-circles at top and bottom.
Here’s a basic photo showing the pattern in the railing:
In the midpoint between each lighting standard, there’s a center part where there are no holes. It’s visible in this broader photo:
Looking closer – the central portion of the 1920s sections are full-solid:
and the later center sections have a gap:
I don’t know why these differ, and it’s probably not terribly important. Perhaps the earlier version is too rigid, less structurally sound? I think that the earlier design is a bit nicer, visually. To me, and I am a bridge nerd, it’s just interesting to read the subtle differences.
And lastly for reading bridges: reading the sidewalk. Here’s a close-up of a panel of the upstream sidewalk near San Fernando Road:
Most L.A. bridges dating from the 1910s-1930s have good-sized commemorative plaques. The plaque includes the date, elected officials, engineers, and more.
(Over time the plaques decrease in size. By the late 40s to early 1950s – the “freeway era” – the plaque disappears entirely. It’s briefly replaced by the year the bridge was built being stamped into the curb, along the gutter. Initially the year stamps are deep, they become shallower, then disappear all together. When bridges are designed for fast-moving car traffic, why bother with details that only pedestrians and cyclists will notice? Additionally, I think that this decline and disappearance is an indicator that the folks who design bridges have made them so functional and anonymous that there’s no longer much in the way of pride of workmanship… but that’s another story.)
Some older bridges, especially where railing has been damaged and removed, will be missing their plaque. It should come as no surprise that the 1928 or 1929 plaques are nowhere to be found on today’s Riverside Drive Bridge. When there’s no plaque to date a bridge, sometimes one can spot the construction date in the sidewalk. The Riverside Drive Bridge sidewalk (photo above), near San Fernando Road, clearly states “SOUTHWEST PAVING CO – LOS ANGELES – 1929.” This is just slightly problematic… because, from my explorations, I think that part of the bridge was built in 1928. Maybe when the new sidehill viaduct bridge was attached, they re-did the whole sidewalk? Maybe I’ve overlooked something in my amateur research.
So… go out and walk this bridge in the next few days… because it’ll be gone soon… and will take a few slices of river history with it.
(Updated 9/23/2011 2pm – fixed some things that were grammatically wrong and/or unclear. I left in the unexplained reference to the 1950’s when the connection between the 5 and the 110 freeways altered this bridge… not so much, though. I don’t have a lot of documentation on that… so just enjoy the vague allusion.)