Chattanoogans Celebrate Selection Of Walnut Street Bridge As One Of America's Great Public Places

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Some of those who helped rescue the historic Walnut Street Bridge from oblivion took part in ceremonies on Tuesday marking the Chattanooga icon as one of America's Great Public Places.

Among those taking part were some of those who helped save the bridge - including Garnet Chapin, Andy Smith and Ben Probasco.

Garnet Chapin had these remarks:

       I have been asked to represent Andy Smith, my architectural partner for the bridge restoration, to stand in for him due to other pressing commitments, and I will do my best in that regard. I know Andy would start by touting the VISION of a group of mostly young people in the mid 70's who banded together under the name Landmarks Chattanooga, to seek to halt the sometime senseless demolition of our city's architectural history, starting with a confrontation with some of the powers that be over the demolition of historic houses just across the way on Bluff View. Early leaders included Andy, my dear friends Happy Baker and Matt Findley and our own dauntless “little old lady in tennis shoes” Mrs. Louise Currey, who more than any other reminded us to “keep our eyes on the prize” of the  restoration of the bridge which she rightly felt was a key to our riverfront rejuvenation. Landmarks early mission phrase  of  “Turn to the River” predates all others who followed.

          Mr. Jack Lupton, who gave Landmarks our first hundred dollar gift, picked up the gauntlet with his incredible generosity and the well-funded support of his Lyndhurst Foundation to build our fabulous Aquarium which kicked of our decades long Love Affair with our riverfront.

           But back in 1978, when the city was ready to tear down our bridge, which had been deemed unsafe, Landmarks kept up their efforts to stave off demolition by seeking feasible restoration options.

          Other unsung heroes of our efforts to save  the bridge and its historic environs were UTC's Dr. Jeff Brown who rediscovered the Historic Bluff Furnace just below the bridge and other compatriots like Steve Cambell of the Bluff Furnace Association, followed by our good friend Dr. Nick Honerkamp upon Jeff's unlimely loss to cancer.

          In 1979 after the bridge had been closed and slated for demolition we used the Bluff Furnace's historic status and a ruling that the bridge was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places to deny the city the federal funds set aside for demolition. I can recall vividly going, with some trepidation, to see then mayor Pat Rose with this news and seeing him slap his forehead with some obvious frustration, “Snap, Garnet, what have you done to us?” We were not so popular among many back then. Within a week, however, the mayor was touting the bridge as a potential pedestrian walkway.

          About this time, I had the opportunity to go to Washington and serve in the Reagan administration's National Park Service, but Andy and Landmarks carried on, hiring Kurt Stagmier to carry out the initial feasibility study on the aging bridge and others like the Bridge Action Resource Committee carrying on the fight to save the bridge. In this case lack of funds prevented the demolition for a decade in time for a rejuvenated Landmarks, now renamed Cornerstones, with leadership from Jay Mills and Tom Montague, and the newly founded Community group Chattanooga Venture to take up the challenge. This group composed of many community leaders such as Mai Bell Hurley, Ron Littlefield, Sally Robinson and many others, took up the task of determining the feasibility of restoring and reusing the bridge.

          Our friend Ben Probasco accepted the leadership of the study team and noted bridge engineer Al  Lichtenstein was brought back to Chattanooga to weigh in on the possibility of an economically feasible restoration. Al and I then developed the cable resupport system which we see today, or don't see, it's pretty inconspicuous, which is now used to help restore historic bridges around the country and around the world. This unique resupport system brought the restoration cost estimate from over $8 million to just over $4 million and brought the project into the “doable” range. The Bluff Furnace Association flew Mayor Gene Roberts to Washington to lobby our representatives, and legislation sponsored by Congressperson Marylyn Lloyd brought us a matching grant to restore the bridge. Venture volunteers, headed by the like of Jim Gallagher and Becky Browder, helped us raise the matching private component by the sale of brass plaques on the bridge which we now have replaced with less recyclable zinc versions.

    As for the restoration, we brought environmentally sensitive blasting methods, informed from our work on the Statue of Liberty, to bear on keeping the toxic lead based paint out of the waters of the Tennessee River, a practice now universally used throughout our state and many others. We brought back the original wood decking and made our “Beautiful Blue Bridge” completely handicapped accessible. A year to the day after the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium, our “New” Walnut Street Bridge was open to the public.

    The community, always our greatest backers, which had watched the restoration with great anticipation over more than two years, showed up in droves to take advantage of their new resource on a 24-hour basis, and one of our primary goals of reinvigorating the North Shore, which was virtually abandoned at the time, seems to have panned out. We'll let you be the judge of that.

    Cornerstones, with Tom Montague at the helm, initiated the now wildly successful “Wine Over Water” festival which has generated hundreds of thousand of dollars to benefit local historic preservation, and the rest, as they say, is history. It's overwhelming success has led to this outstanding recognition today as one of America's Great Public Spaces, but we knew that all along.....

Click here to watch video by Garnet Chapin.

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