Water Under a Troubled Bridge

John Berryman jumped on a Friday morning. It was the first week of 1972, and Berryman had just finished his second suicide note of the year; he'd also polished off half a bottle of whiskey after a grueling six-month try at sobriety. Hung-over and heartbroken, the poet and University of Minnesota professor climbed out over the railing of the Washington Avenue Bridge and let go.

Think of a man dropping like a lost shoe off the side of a bridge. The idea invites a peculiar sensation, something akin to what we feel when looking out the window of a jet during takeoff and watching the ground drop away. It's a sensation rarely invoked by modern concrete bridges--that the structure is not really anchored to the earth but suspended high above it by inches of steel and stone.

This Friday morning, a circle of crows is wheeling about in the sky above the Mississippi, which runs dark and narrow here. Despite encroaching development, there is still a wide plain along the river that slopes gently up to the west. Below the bridge, workers are busy constructing the last Minnesota link in the Great River Road, which will connect the Mississippi's source in Itasca to its endpoint in the floodplains of Louisiana. The steel neck of their crane partially obscures a rather stirring view of the downtown skyline. On the other side of the water, beyond a railroad bridge rusted and blackened from age, the smokestacks of the East Bank belch thin streams of white smoke.

As seen from the spot on the frozen bank of the Mississippi where Berryman hit the ground, the Washington Avenue Bridge looks like a reasonable choice for a terminally melancholy poet's final leap; it owns the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular suicide sites in the city. About a half-dozen people have leapt over the waist-high guardrail in the years since Berryman's death, including one discharged psychiatric patient who'd wandered over from a University hospital. A light rain is falling across the steel ribs that support the raised pedestrian walkway and the highway that runs beneath is rutted and gray. There are a few scratches of graffiti on the bridge's concrete underbelly, but they have been mostly washed away by time and diligent scrubbing. The bridge's skeletal form is a striking contrast to the compressed, megalithic landscape of the University's East Bank--especially so when viewed against the backdrop of the Weisman Museum. That fortress of stainless steel geometric solids seems part of a decorative urban landscape, while the bridge is isolated in a grimy, practical past.

Despite periodic attempts to beautify this eyesore, the bridge has proven remarkably resistant to rehabilitation. Since Mark Yudof took over as University president in the fall of 1997, the Washington Avenue Bridge has been a rallying point for proponents of campus beautification. Yudof himself slapped a coat of paint on the pedestrian walkway to begin his $1.8 million "Take Pride in U" campaign. Because the bridge itself is under the jurisdiction of Hennepin County, however, little has been done to mitigate the effect of this undeniably unattractive piece of metal on the river valley landscape. These days county officials are planning a renovation for the city's least favorite bridge, including a $5-million makeover in Gopher maroon and gold. For much of the summer, the entire structure will be cocooned in material to contain paint chips and dust.

Cosmetic changes aside, however, many will still consider the structure a dramatic example of charmlessly utilitarian design. Rather than uniting the two banks, the bridge itself seems unnecessarily spartan and almost haphazard. The layered design is ingenious, yet the pedestrian bridge is nothing more than a glass corridor with a metal roof over it.

Ironic that the Washington Avenue Bridge was criticized as a missed opportunity even before it was built. Designed in the early '60s as part of the University's westward sprawl, the bridge was originally conceived of as both a literal and architectural link between the functional aesthetic of the distant Warehouse District and the institutional look of the campus. Winston Close, the University's advisory architect and one of the minds behind the bridge's two-tiered design, had had even higher hopes for the span. According to his widow and former architectural partner Elizabeth, Close had hoped to turn the interior walkway into a pedestrian concourse modeled after the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence. "He wanted to put bookstores in," she recalls. "It would have been a live place rather than just a passageway."

As often happens, though, the architect's exquisite vision was foiled by pragmatism (the Department of Transportation did not share Close's enthusiasm for a retail strip situated directly above a highway). Instead of the community nexus Close envisioned, construction began in 1962 on the skeletal span that now carries traffic and students across the river. Close was understandably disappointed. "He wasn't keen on the design," remembers Elizabeth. "He was upset because they didn't do the things that would have made that a living place. It was no Ponte Vecchio."

Close's son Roy, a playwright and former Pioneer Press theater critic, was a student at the University in the '60s. He rarely used the bridge to cross to the West Bank, but he understands his father's disappointment. "It would have had life," he says. "It wouldn't just have been a bridge--it would have been an experience. The interior spine is just an exposed girder. It really is an ugly bridge, isn't it?"

Wandering through the cavernous pedestrian passageway at night, one wonders what might have been. Imagine bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants here, turning the bridge into a lively, inhabited place. University students coming home from a late night at the library or bar might linger rather than rushing through to the other side. Instead the space is half-lit, empty, and littered with cigarette butts. It's three seconds from the guardrail to the water, maybe four.

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