“Local Color and Urban Grit”: Tagging the Rusticated Piers of the Henry Ave. Bridge

“Graffiti exists along nearly every inch of space that is reachable from the trail winding along the hillside of the lower Wissahickon Valley, providing only obvious visible distinction between the bridge today and its original appearance, while adding a splash of local color and urban grit to the tranquil setting.” —[Historic American Engineering Record, Henry Avenue Bridge / Wissahickon Memorial Bridge]

Movement on the Reading Viaduct



It’s clear people are still thinking about the Reading Viaduct. Though a kind of vestigial organ of a vanished transportational body, the Viaduct is becoming to the neighborhoods it oversees. Artists are beginning to climb into its musty folds and call it their own and far from being a haunting piece of industrial detritus, the structure revels in transition and permanence.  A new public art installation set in a crevasse of the old trestle and a conceptual drawing tacked to the remains of the massive elevated structure facing Vine Street reflect this growing conversation. What first struck me was the delightfully perfect placement of the rendering against the faux-stolid stonework of the 1951 abutment.  But even more fascinating, upon closer inspection, is the future the rendering holds.



People pass it not knowing that it shows a place in time, in exactitude, as it could be. While the authors are still unknown, we’re fast on the case It could be the work of the Reading Viaduct Project folks, it could be the musing of a citizen, or it could be a student project.  Basically, it depicts what could be the very inviting southern trailhead of the Reading Viaduct–four flights of steps and an inclined walkway. In what appears a very honest and natural depiction a real possibility: a couple lounges on the broad Art Museum like steps, a family ambles by while a jogger ascends the series of inclined planes.



The good folks at the Asian Arts Initiative, who themselves have sponsored an amazing sculptural project using the viaduct as a backdrop, are looking into the mysterious rendering.  Just a block down from the futural sketch, Jonathan and Kimberly Stemler’s the little red string consists of a series of tiny Chinese lanterns strung along the ceiling of the Carlton Street portal of the viaduct.  Even in the white hot heat of last Sunday afternoon, the tiny Baby’s Bottom lanterns shone bright against the ochre-hued blackness of the dank tunnel.  If you follow the sinuous electrical cables you’ll find that the tiny bulbs are illuminated by power from the Shelly Electric Company, a seemingly longtime neighbor of the trestle.  If you pass through the tunnel to the west, a placard affixed to the Shelly Company’s wall orients you to the piece.  the little red string is one of four public art pieces sponsored by the Asian Arts Initiative as a part of their Futurescapes–Chinatown in Flux project, a sculptural telling of how Chinese-American Philadelphians grapple with and ultimately populate austere cityscapes emptied of their personal content.



Projects like these amount to something of a response to my earlier suggestion that the Viaduct Project fundamentally lacked support on the ground. To be sure, the obstacles to developing the viaduct into Philadelphia’s High Line still exist. But both these projects show a desire to reconnect the Reading Viaduct to a living city, to reconnect it to the people it was meant to serve, albeit in a different form.



And if we believe things have an essential and constant nature: the thing that once ferried so many will again be remade and in turn, remake.

“Of Graceful Proportions”: Strickland Kneass’s Cast Iron Chestnut St. Bridge


Want to find out why the eastern abutment of the uninspiring Chestnut Street Bridge looks like a cathedral? Check out my post at Phillyhistory.org here. Above is a pretty shoddy overlay of a 1958 HAER photo onto a relatively picture of the bridge taken last April when Penndot was doing a structural investigation of the bridge. Interestingly enough, concrete from of the “new” 1956-59 bridge was failing with chunks falling on the Schuylkill Banks path. The 1866 abutment seemed to be holding up.



One of the issues that I wanted to clarify in the Phillyhistory.org piece was that the Expressway and increased traffic both conspired against Kneass’s bridge and led to its demise. According to a Streets Department publication, Paving the Way from 1956-59, that while most of the bridge rehab projects “were directly connected with expressway construction”… “considerable emphasis was given to the replacement of existing spans unable to handle today’s traffic volumes. Structures like those on Chestnut St…..”

Follow the jump for photos of the Penndot bridge inspection and the offending concrete.

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Switch and Signal

Nature is slowly enveloping the various components of this switch and signal apparatus on the eastern approach of the Grays Ferry Swing Bridge. Portions of the electro-mechanical device alerted the bridge tender that a train was present and the bridge could not be moved. Conversely if the bridge was open, trackmen could throw this switch and bar trains from moving across the bridge.The now-defunct Bethlehem Steel did brisk business in railroad “safety” switches in the early part of the 20th century. US Switch and Signal was (and is) also a major producer of railroad gates and signals.

On the surface of these components are raised company names, trademarks and operating instuctions (“depress here to apply padlock”) — creating a strange island of legibility amid the underbrush. While we understand or can conjecture the function of some parts, with others we lack the lived experience to gather meaning. And so this old century’s bit of modernity is being swallowed up both physically and conceptually.

You Turn Me Right Round: Open PRR Swing Bridge, Grays Ferry

When the Schuylkill river was a conduit for coal, lumber, refined petroleum products, stone, and other finished goods, nearly every crossing south of the mound dam at Fairmount was of sufficient height to allow barge traffic. Some like the University Ave Bridge, the South Street Bridge, the CSX rail bridge (that carries our vaunted trash trains to us), and a tiny one track ex-PRR railroad swing bridge south of the Grays Ferry Bridge had mechanical appurtenances enabling them to open, swing, and elevate around river traffic.

The PRR swing bridge locked in the open position and the currently-used railroad bridge just south have the distinction of being the only two swing bridges in the city of Philadelphia. During the heyday of civil engineering, swing bridges were some of the most innovative — and trickiest — bridges to execute. Unlike a drawbridge or a bascule bridge, swing bridges were almost exclusively dependent on their central pivot point which is situated within the ship channel. Barges striking the central pier could damage either the central span or its pivot or bring the entire structure out of true with its approaches. The central pivot also had to be maintained, cleaned, and lubricated. New York City’s Third Avenue Swing Bridge, the only in that city, still requires consistent upkeep.


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The Rivers Were Angry That Day, or We’ll Pronounce the “th” in Northeaster


What is a Northeaster? Why is it pronounced Na’hreastah like we’re in Amoskeag? Why are they the worst storms ever? Why aren’t they called ice hurricanes? Checking the index in my handy Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather it explains, laymanly:

“As a cold front enters the trough along the South Atlantic Coast and cold polar air passes over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or Gulf Stream off Georgia and the Carolinas, storms can develop quickly. They move nahtheest along the coast, delivering driving stow in winter and cold rain in summer–the famous na’hreasteah of the Atlantic seaboard.”

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