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City of Rochester's bridges are part of its 'signature'

Rochester Business Journal
May 16, 2014

There are many cities with rivers running through them. Pittsburgh has its “Three Rivers” and Cleveland has the Cuyahoga, with necessity and circumstance combining as part of their formative history. As these cities grew, the bridges designed to cross their waterways were necessities of the times. As they were built, they reflected the spirit and character of these cities.

In Rochester, the Genesee River has played its part in defining who we are as a community. The bridge designs that span it vary widely and, taken as a whole, tell a fascinating story. Within the city limits there are more than 20 bridges, each with its own type and purpose.

Consider the differences in material and appearance between two of our most well-known spans: the Veterans Memorial Bridge to the north and the recently completed Douglass-Anthony Bridge in the center of the city. They are clearly differing reflections of civic intent. Both soar in their own way, one statuesque and made of stone, the other balancing the dual characteristics of steel, massiveness and tightly coiled tensile strength.

The undertaking of bridge design is a complex blend of architecture and engineering. The selected design approach for a given project depends on a number of factors: the span (whether an expansive gorge is being bridged or a more limited channel); the traffic it must accommodate (train, vehicle, pedestrian); the construction technology available (stone arch, concrete, steel); the costs involved; and aesthetic aspiration.

The way in which bridge designers in Rochester have responded to this wide variety of factors has created an amazingly varied response and end product. Often the true structural “story” is not obvious. The Veterans Memorial Bridge is one such example. Almost 1,000 feet long and more than 100 feet wide, the main span rises 150 feet above the Genesee River gorge and carries 70,000 vehicles a day. Originally constructed in 1931, it appears to depend upon massive granite stones for its structural support. In fact, the bridge is a reinforced concrete arch structure with an open interior. The stone is a veneer, an aesthetic facade of granite panels weighing 2 to 4 tons each.

All structures have a life expectancy. When they are replaced, it is an opportunity for an expression of the times. Three significant city bridges over the Genesee River have been replaced within the last 10 years, with widely differing designs.

 O’Rorke Bridge (formerly the Stutson Street Bridge): The Stutson Street Bridge opened in 1916 and was designed by Joseph B. Strauss (who went on to become chief engineer for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge). Its open framing, gearing, decking and articulated counterweights were fascinating to watch in operation. But it was unable to keep up with the demands of the nearly 20,000 vehicles that crossed the span daily, and machinery malfunctions plagued the 1,500 lifts the bridge had to make each year.

The new replacement bridge opened to traffic on Oct. 1, 2004. Constructed some 250 feet upstream of the existing bridge, the “Scherzer” rolling-lift bascule design updated the previous engineering marvel while maintaining its function. It has become another landmark structure, serving as a focal point in the revitalization of the surrounding waterfront community at the Port of Rochester.

 Ford Street Bridge (originally the Clarissa Street Bridge): The Ford Street Bridge connects the historic Corn Hill neighborhood and the Mt. Hope-Highland National Historic District. Its current configuration dates to 1918, when the bridge carried both trolley and vehicular traffic. It replaced a deck truss bridge that provided little clearance for Genesee River navigation, and it was considered to be a component of the Barge Canal system. At the time, the additional clearance ensured that access to the Rochester harbor (just north of Ford Street) could be obtained by using the Barge Canal System to enter the Genesee River and traveling northward.

The Ford Street Bridge rehabilitation project included historic preservation along with reconstruction and widening of the truss bridge. The character-defining riveted steel “pony trusses” were retained for their aesthetic and historic value but no longer provide the main structural support. This was accomplished via modern heavy steel girder supports that are deftly blended with the historic components.

 Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge (formerly the Troup-Howell Bridge): In 1999, design work began on a replacement for Rochester’s busiest span. A wide variety of bridge types were evaluated: short-span steel multi-girder, long-span steel multi-girder, pre-stressed concrete box girder, steel box girder, steel through arch, cable-stayed. The community was invited to offer opinions and overwhelmingly chose the steel arch. The consensus was that the site deserved a “gateway” or “signature” span that framed the river as well as the city skyline.

On July 13, 2007, then-Mayor Robert Duffy dedicated the new bridge, officially changing the name from Troup-Howell to the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge. The design is a powerful new centerpiece for the city.

Each of these designs has contributed to the reinforcement and the continuing redefinition of our city. These are only a few of the most prominent examples. There are many more striking designs like the sinuous Brooks Landing Pedestrian Bridge connecting the University of Rochester’s campus with the 19th Ward; the multi-directional Sister Cities Bridge and our Main Street Bridge with its gritty industrial past and Albert Paley-designed steel railings.

As we traverse our city and region, these uniquely designed crossings are well worth pausing to consider. Taken together, they tell the story of our city, expressing its industriousness, creativity and civic pride.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of the American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or

5/16/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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