Despite Architectural Value, Gothic Bridge Fades in S.C.

Fri December 23, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Robert Behre

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) The “Five Mile Viaduct” bridge has an aesthetic quality rarely seen in today’s more modern bridges.

Built in 1926, its railings have small Gothic arches and are punctuated regularly by solid blocks that also serve as expansion joints.

It’s located at the headwaters of Rivers Avenue and is perhaps the most concrete sign of where Charleston stops and North Charleston begins — though it doesn’t exactly mark the city limits of either.

Some recall the bridge fondly because if crossed fast enough — a bit faster than the posted speed limit — one gets a brief sense of weightlessness.

A 1995 historical survey of North Charleston concluded the bridge was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

So then why is no one complaining about it being torn down?

A big part of that answer is its location.

The bridge crosses a railroad track, and the surrounding properties are mostly industrial. This isn’t a pretty part of town. And those residents who do live nearby have bigger challenges to face than a historic preservation fight.

An even more important reason might be its structural condition.

The bridge was deemed unable to handle vehicles of more than five tons before it recently was closed to traffic entirely. The only thing crossing it these days are two temporary utility lines.

Also, the bridge is about 2 ft. (.6 m) too low to allow double-stacked trains to pass underneath.

For those reasons, the S.C. Department of Transportation is planning to replace it.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey noted he went to high school just down the street from the bridge and part of him would like to see it saved. But he said not one resident has contacted him to protest its loss.

“To me, it’s no different than the old Cooper River bridge,” Summey said. “It would be great [to save it], but does it make practical sense?”

Richard Cleary, an associate professor at the University of Texas’ School of Architecture, wrote a book on the nation’s bridges and noted that there are so many, they’re easy to forget about.

Case in point: As the nation’s preservation movement expanded between 1980 and 2000, more than half of its historic bridges were torn down, according to Cleary’s “Bridges,” published in 2007.

There’s no question the Five Mile Viaduct bridge needs a lot of help. Chunks have spalled off and fallen from its side, and weeds are encroaching on all sides. It is marked with old scars that need patching. Its bronze plaques are gone.

There could be a good case made for saving it — if a rehabilitation could solve the necessary structural issues.

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor owns an old service station just north of the bridge and said many neighboring property owners are concerned about the size of its replacement and what sort of easement the state will need and how that will affect local traffic and property values.

“We want fairness, and we want access to Rivers Avenue just like we have right now,” he said. “They’re going to change the whole dynamics of Rivers Avenue.”

In other words, repairing rather than replacing the bridge could be the answer not only to some property owners’ concerns but also to those interested in seeing North Charleston save part of its heritage.

Of course, if there are people interested in that, they’d better speak up.