The Longfellow Bridge, Part 3 or we don’t build the way we used to build

When I did my first post on the Longfellow Bridge almost four years ago, I didn’t realize it was the first in an occasional series, but that is what it has turned out to be.  The first post was about design and reconfiguring the roadway for car, the train, bicycles, and walkers.  In the second, I wrote about the final design, the construction schedule and traffic patterns during the long period of rebuilding.  And since the construction is now underway, this post is about rebuilding the historic structure.

Longfellow Bridge under construction May 2014

Longfellow Bridge under construction May 2014

I had a chance to look at the bridge the other night when we drove over to Kendall Square on Memorial Drive.  You can see the old ironwork and that one pair of the salt and pepper shakers has been removed.  So it was interesting to read the story in the Boston Globe a few days later on some of the difficulties engineers and contractors have been confronting.

It turns out that they just don’t make bridges the way they used to.

One year after the launch of the sweeping Longfellow Bridge reconstruction project, contractors are getting an education on the construction practices of yore, poring over century-old bridge building manuals, reviving obsolete metalworking techniques, and scouring the region for building materials that have long disappeared from the market.

Rockport granite, with its inimitable grain? That stuff stopped being excavated during the Great Depression.

And the art of riveting metal? Its heyday — which calls to mind black-and-white photos of fighter planes and posters of a bandanna-wearing woman named “Rosie” — has long faded into the past.

The Longfellow is historic and contractors bidding to work on the bridge were required to agree to replicate old techniques wherever possible.  Riveting for example.

The art of riveting went out of fashion a half-century ago. The practice involves heating rivets, cylindrical metal shafts with round heads, up to 2,000 degrees, until they glow bright red, then quickly jamming them into a hole before they have a chance to cool. It’s slow, costly, and dangerous. That’s why construction largely switched to nuts and bolts that can more easily be screwed into place.

“The technology never totally went away,” Sullivan [Charles from the Cambridge Historic Commission] said. “But you no longer see pictures of people standing on the frame of the Empire State Building throwing rivets through the air.”

So how did the contractors learn the technique?

Some of the contractors attended a seminar on riveting in Michigan. Others looked to 1930s-era manuals on rivet techniques — their best guide on the subject.

And the Rockport granite?

But rivets aren’t the only challenge of this project. Finding the right replacement granite has proved elusive.The particular granite hails from quarries in Rockport that began to close just after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Concrete was cheap and easy to make, and became a more popular option for construction.

Now, Rockport granite is impossible to find freshly cut from the earth: Anything now on the market has been reclaimed, stripped from an existing structure. And most pieces available are thin slabs — not the great big blocks necessary for the work on the Longfellow.

As part of a new design for the bridge deck, contractors had already planned to strip the existing granite curb between the vehicle lanes and the T tracks. They had hoped to repurpose that granite to construct new stone stairs and barriers on the side of the bridge.

But the stone alongside the train tracks is known as Deer Isle granite, which has a lavender hue — not the black-white-and-gray speckled look of Rockport granite.

“People who know stone said, ‘Oh, it’s Deer Isle, that’s not going to work,’ ” Roper [Steve from Mass DOT] said. “They’re different grains, and they will not look good if you put them side by side.”

So where can you find Rockport granite?

What they didn’t know: Biz Reed, co-owner and executive vice president of Wakefield-based Olde New England Granite, had exactly what they needed. In 2010, on a whim, Reed’s company had purchased 3,000 tons of historic Rockport granite that had been stripped from the Hines Memorial Bridge in Amesbury during a reconstruction project.

He had no idea what the company would do with such a large amount of such a particular form of stone, but they couldn’t pass it up.

“Little did we know it would be the right match for the Longfellow,” Reed said. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

When Reed got word that a team of MassDOT officials, historical preservationists, and construction contractors were all on the hunt for the Rockport stone, he gave them a call.

So piece by piece, rivet by rivet, the Longfellow Bridge is being restored to her former self – with room to ride, walk or bike.

Longfellow before

Photograph:  Longfellow under construction David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Photograph:  Longfellow Bridge from Wikipedia images

Rebuilding the Longfellow Bridge, Part 2

In 2010, I wrote about the potential redesign of the historic Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge to make it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.  This week, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced they were ready to being rebuilding.  Renovation will begin this summer and take three years if all goes according to schedule.  According to the Boston Globe

Through the duration of the three-year construction project, the bridge will only accommodate cars traveling from Cambridge into Boston. Traffic headed north will be diverted to the Craigie Bridge, adjacent to the Museum of Science. The road leading to Cambridge will be narrowed to one lane to allow for bicycle traffic. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2010 The road leading to Cambridge will be narrowed to one lane to allow for bicycle traffic.

For 25 weekends, the Red Line will not traverse the bridge, and commuters will instead be shuttled via bus. The T will continue to run on weekdays, on temporary tracks on the road while workers perform maintenance on the permanent rails.

The traffic flow will look something like this.

Traffic flow from Summer 2013 to Winter 2015

Traffic flow from Summer 2013 to Winter 2014/2015

As you can see, no traffic will come over the bridge from Cambridge.  The alternate route will go over a drawbridge near the Museum of Science which should make for a lot of fun during rush hour.  At least one can take the train on weekdays.

Then some time during the winter of 2014/2015, the closed lane will move to the other side of the bridge, but traffic will still only go from Boston to Cambridge.  There will be more buses to shuttle passengers while the train is shutdown.

Will all of this be worth the disruption?  Something had to happen with the Longfellow – that was clear.  The bridge which was built in 1906 badly needs repairs.  Everyone wanted more accommodation for walkers and bikers.  And the unique salt and pepper shakers had to be preserved so there would be no widening. The towers will be dismantled and rebuilt around a new frame.  The compromise redesign looks like this.

Redesign with one lane traffic to Cambridge.

Redesign with one lane traffic to Cambridge.

No one is 100% happy with this, but as has been pointed out, traffic has dropped since the Zakim Bridge on the interstate opened.

According to the Boston Globe story from last February

The state pulled back on its Longfellow plans in 2010 and convened a 36-member task force that included bike, pedestrian, and environmental advocates, neighbors, and civic and business leaders, whose input contributed to the new design.

“One of the breakthroughs of the task force was to treat the inbound side of the bridge and the outbound side of the bridge differently,’’ said state Representative Martha M. Walz,  a Democrat whose district includes the bridge’s Boston approach and part of its Cambridge approach.

Fellow task force member Richard A. Dimino  said the plan addresses contemporary needs while respecting the history of the bridge. “They’ve made exceptional efforts to ensure that the historic character of the bridge will be preserved, and obviously it’s a landmark bridge,’’ said Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, which represents hospitals, universities, financial firms, and other major employers on regional transportation planning.

You can see some of the design proposals and read more about the history of the bridge on my original post.  I will be watching the Longfellow as construction begins.

The Museum of Science, Boston. On the Charles ...

The Museum of Science, Boston. On the Charles River with a view of the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge behind it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rebuilding the Longfellow Bridge

During the years I lived in Boston and worked in Somerville, I often took the red line train home in the late afternoon.  You would emerge from underground at the Kendall Square station onto the Longfellow Bridge and a spectacular panoramic view of the Charles River and the Boston skyline.  Often there were boats sailing.  You might see rowers, a Duck Boat Tour, and in the winter, ice forming on the edges of the shore.  The view rarely failed to make me feel better about the day.

Longfellow Bridge

But the bridge is now falling apart and a discussion has begun about how to redesign it.  The bridge will not be widened and there will still be room for inbound and outbound red line trains. 

Eric Moskowitz wrote in the Boston Globe on July 25

But the rebuilding of the Longfellow is about more than saving it from collapse. It comes at a time when key policy makers, from Boston’s mayor to the Obama administration, have pledged to rethink transportation and pull back from decades of favoring drivers and cars over bicycles and walkers.

As a result, the Longfellow has emerged as a touchstone and test case in the debate over urban transportation, with officials, highway engineers, civic leaders, and community advocates grappling over whether to reclaim some of the pavement used by automobiles to make more room for everybody else. It is a thorny issue that remains unresolved even as construction begins on a bridge that is both a treasure to preservationists and a lifeline for thousands who traverse it each day by subway, car, bicycle, and foot.

This is the proposal from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation

 Then the Liveable Streets proposal

You can also see the existing configuration.

Advocates [for the liveable streets alternative] say such a plan would honor a raft of recent policy changes and public pronouncements from leading officials. On his blog in March, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared “the end of favoring motorized transportation.’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino, at a bicycle summit, announced to cheers that “the car is no longer king.’’

The advocates note that car traffic on the Longfellow has been steadily declining for a decade, coinciding largely with the opening of the nearby Zakim Bridge. And they point out that traffic adjusted when the Longfellow Bridge’s travel lanes were temporarily closed for safety reasons. Now they see an ideal, highly visible opportunity for permanently taking some of that pavement to encourage more bikers and walkers.

I love the idea of cutting down on car traffic and benches on the walks.  This is a chance to really change the urban environment.

A shot of the Longfellow Bridge on a foggy night in January, 1919.

The Longfellow is named for a pedestrian: poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who regularly walked the earlier West Boston Bridge over the Charles during his long and turbulent courtship of the daughter of a Beacon Hill industrialist. In 1845 he published a poem inspired by those crossings, “The Bridge.’’