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Pasadena Museum of History unveils Colorado Street Bridge plaque and exhibit

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Pasadena is a city of icons, a town that is ubiquitous onscreen with its Beaux Arts government buildings, stately mansions, street after street of Craftsman bungalows, and a bridge that is so architecturally, structurally, and aesthetically superb that it has been memorialized on canvas, in film, and in sweeping prose. It is the Colorado Street Bridge, the western gateway to the city, which celebrates 100 years of graceful existence this month.

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Pasadena Museum of History (PMH) honored the achievement on Saturday by mounting an exhibit and unveiling a plaque to mark the rededication of the landmark. The exhibit, “The Colorado Street Bridge: Centennial Exhibition,” which features works of art, memorabilia, books and plans, is on display through April 19, 2014.

In his speech, Mayor Bill Bogaard quoted a writer in Scientific American who said that the bridge is one of the few bridges that can truly be classified as a work of art. So prevalent is it in inspiring art ranging from plein air oils to orange crates and matchbooks to stunning photographs, that one viewer of the exhibit remarked that she wondered if any landmark has been painted by as many amateur and professional artists as the Colorado Street Bridge. Indeed, in any season, any time of day, and from any angle, the bridge is stunning. A 1949 photo shows it deep in snow, and others show it bathed in sunlight.

Also celebrating a centennial is the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Los Angeles Section. “As the bridge was being built, the organization was organizing,” Andrew Machen, ASCE, told Examiner. Machen is the Los Angeles Section chair of the History and Heritage Committee and curator of the centennial exhibition.

That it made it to 100 years is amazing in itself, and is due, perhaps in equal parts to the design of engineers Waddell & Harrington, which included sweeping curves in the roadway to allow setting the piers in the best spots across the Arroyo Seco, and the love of residents for the beauty it brings to the community.

The first street-level crossing from Los Angeles to Pasadena over the seep gulch that is the Arroyo Seco, the Colorado Street Bridge came perilously close to demolition in the 1950s when the 134 Freeway was constructed. Aficionados mounted a letter-writing campaign and the course 134 was changed to allow the bridge to stand.

Years later, the materials began to crumble, and the bridge was no longer safe. Replacing it was seemingly inevitable. But once again, the people rallied, and in the early 1990s, the bridge was reconstructed rather than replaced. City photographer Tavo Olmos captured the process in The Colorado Street Bridge: Restoration Project Photographs, 1991-1993, which is sold by the museum gift shop.

Don Sepulveda, chairman of the centennial team that put the exhibition together, introduced several past presidents and current president Yaz Emrani of ASCE Los Angeles Section. The bridge was designated a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by ASCE Los Angeles in 1975, a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the City of Pasadena in 1979, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in 1981.

Along with the bridge exhibit, PMH is displaying “Kites, Wings, & Other Flying Things,” which shows the evolution of flight in Pasadena from newspaper kites to the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Voyager missions.

Pasadena Museum of History is located at 470 W. Walnut St. (corner Orange Grove Blvd. and Walnut St.), Pasadena. Street parking is available. For more information, visit the PMH website or call (626) 577-1660, ext. 10.

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