Located between two of the capital’s major tourist attractions, Arlington Memorial Bridge was started 40 years after a bridge at this site was first officially studied and even longer after Andrew Jackson first suggested such a span to symbolize the union between the North and South. Various proposals to cross the Potomac River here were developed and abandoned over the years, including a twin-towered design chosen through an architectural competition in 1900. Eventually, with the creation of the McMillan Park Commission and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to expand the ceremonial core of Washington, plans turned to creating a bridge that would be integrated into the monumental new plan for the capital. Providing a dramatic entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, the Memorial Bridge is particularly notable for its role in extending the axial plan of the Mall across the river.
The bridge, begun in 1926, owes its neoclassical style to the noted architects McKim, Mead and White (Stanford White served on the 1900 design competition jury). The ornamented masonry facing lends dignity to the bridge and relates it to the Lincoln Memorial (1922. Henry Bacon). Many people consider this the most beautiful bridge in Washington, while others have decried the facing as an ill-conceived attempt to obscure the purity of the structural design. Elizabeth Mock, for example, described it in The Architecture of Bridges (Museum of Modern Art, 1949) as “designed in Washington’s usual pompous neo-classic manner.”
With nine arches, the reinforced-concrete span is 2,138 feet long and 60-feet wide with 15-foot walkways. The center arch is a double-leaf bascule bridge to provide clearance for ships traveling to the old port of Georgetown, about a mile upstream. Although built of steel, it was designed to blend in with its neighboring masonry-clad arches. At 216-feet long, the draw span is among the longest in the world but has not been opened for several years. Completing the bridge’s ceremonial character are sculpted eagles and bison by Paul C. Jennewein as well as equestrian figures by Leo Friedlander. The bridge remains in heavy use carrying U.S. Route 50 across the Potomac. (National Register.)
NOTE: This description of Washington’s Arlington Memorial Bridge from Donald C. Jackson’s Great American Bridges and Dams (New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1988), seemed an appropriate 2012 Memorial Day entry here.
It really is a beautiful bridge, part of a breathtaking city design, and its linking relation to the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery is extremely moving.
I’ve always thought that Professor Jackson’s book, a National Trust Guide and 50-state bridges and dams Baedeker, should be in every American’s automobile glove compartment. (The book is oblong and seems made that purpose.)
Gracefully written and beautifully illustrated, the study’s introductory history and architectural conservation sections, as well as its A-W/state-by-state bridge and dam descriptions, along with its epilogue, all teach valuable, memorable lessons.
I hope everyone reading this enjoys a very happy Memorial Day.