TOPSHAM — Is the rushing sound of a nearby river critical to preserving the industrial heritage of an old mill? Does eliminating an iconic feature from a setting diminish the character of the surrounding historical properties?
These were the kinds of questions asked Oct. 27, when interested parties gathered to discuss eligibility of the Frank J. Wood Bridge for the National Register of Historic Places.
At the same time, project engineers provided answers about all the possibilities for appearance and cost of a revamped bridge, either new or rehabilitated. Analysis showed that the long-term costs of rehabilitating the bridge might be nearly double the costs of replacing it with a concrete alternative.
A state land surveyor told the crowd of about 35 that, so far, she does not believe removing the bridge will diminish or infringe upon the integrity of the four surrounding historic districts.
However, the meeting ended without a clear sense of whether the bridge meets the criteria to be listed on the register, which the Federal Highway Administration must determine in order for the structure to earn the protection the listing would provide.
The Department of Transportation’s June announcement that it wants to replace the 85-year-old “Green Bridge” initiated the review by the Federal Highway Administration.
The bridge is eligible for review because it is in the Brunswick/Topsham Industrial Historic District. The FHA will get the final say as to whether the bridge must be preserved as a National Historic Place, and will likely make a decision by early next year.
It is yet unclear whether the listing would prevent the bridge from being replaced under the Historical Preservation Act of 1966, but proponents of rehabilitation attended the meeting to defend the bridge’s historic value, based on its iconic architecture and its status in the views seen from surrounding historic districts.
In addition to the Section 106 process, federal agencies are also reviewing the bridge to ensure that construction will not violate laws that protect the area’s natural species and environments.
There are seven sets of criteria to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.
To be listed, a place must meet at least one of the first five; the site cannot be listed if it only qualifies under the “feeling” or “association” headings, which have more to do with a sense or perception of value than definable features.
The bridge, which carries Route 201 between Brunswick and Topsham, lies at the intersection of four separate historic districts and places already listed on the register: the Summer Street historic district, the Pejepscot Paper Co. Historic District, the Brunswick/Topsham Industrial Historic District, and the Cabot Mill.
At the Oct. 29 meeting, land surveyor Kate Willis, who conducted a survey of the bridge last winter, said removing the bridge would not alter the historical nature of the other sites, which have views of the bridge.
Additionally, Willis said although the bridge is listed as a “contributing factor” in the historical setting of at least one of the surround historical sites, the bridge itself does not necessarily qualify independently under the same criteria.
Members of the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge pro-rehabilitation group questioned that judgment. “If you remove one element of the setting,” Friends’ attorney Steve Hinchman said, “doesn’t it affect the setting” of the other sites protected by the registry?
Willis countered that the crossing is more important than the structure itself. In addition, she said, the Frank J. Wood Bridge is not the original bridge that corresponds to the historical era in question.
In previous meetings, the Friends’ have argued that the bridge is worth preserving because, according to a pamphlet provided by Graham, it is a “good example of a Warren Truss Bridge, a type of bridge that was once common in Maine and is now becoming rare.”
“It helps define our ‘place,’ which sets us apart and makes us unique and attracts both tourists, businesses and residents, as it attracted my family and my business to relocate to the area,” Graham said in an email Tuesday, arguing that the bridge is not only representative of Maine infrastructure, but a defining feature in the Brunswick/Topsham Industrial Historic District.
John Shattuck, Topsham director economic development director, took her point further after the meeting. “Why is this particular part in history … one that must be preserved at all costs?” he said.
Friends’ member and Topsham business owner Phinney White pointed out the bridge’s proximity to the Brunswick falls, which flow beneath it and provided the power source that gave rise to industry in the 1800s. He worried that a new, concrete bridge (especially one along a new alignment) would disrupt the falls.
Friends’ President John Graham agreed. “The reason Brunswick and Topsham sit where they sit is because of those three natural falls,” he said, noting the two of the falls were removed to make way for the dam the sits upstream of the bridge.
Willis wasn’t sure if a natural feature qualified as a contributing factor to a historical place, but noted that “there’s definitely setting there.”
Shattuck argued the opposite point of view. He suggested that a new bridge might enhance the historical value of the area, because it would no longer obstruct the views from the Cabot Mill to the Bowdoin Mill.
Additionally, he said, a new bridge would be safer and more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing the bridge and taking in the historic industrial setting along the Androscoggin. At the suggestion of Brunswick and Topsham officials, the DOT included wide sidewalks and pedestrian overlooks in their designs for a new bridge.
While the historical nature of the bridge is still unclear, the condition of its structural integrity was decided months ago.
The DOT announced its plan to replace the bridge last April, after finding that the 805-foot-long truss bridge has suffered major deterioration along its floor beams and earned a “poor condition” rating from the Federal Highway Administration.
However, the DOT has walked back its commitment to replacing the bridge, and project engineer Joel Kittredge would not confirm whether the DOT would still consider rehabilitation if the FHA decides not to designate the bridge as historical.
“In light of all the information that has come to light recently, we’re looking for direction from the (FHA),” Kittredge said. “I cannot say for the DOT what we’re going to do.”
Of the five possible designs the DOT and T.Y. Lin provided Oct. 29, two are rehabilitation options, differing only by the addition of an easterly sidewalk, which adds $2 million to construction costs, but improves bicycle and pedestrian passage.
In these cases, construction would cost $15 million and $17 million, respectively. However, the lifetime costs are projected at $20.8 million and $23.2 million over an estimated 75 years.
Replacing the bridge, on the other hand, would cost between $13 and $16 million, with one option for replacement yet to be determined.
The DOT provided three replacement options, and, in every case, the design calls for a concrete and steel girder bridge. While aesthetically and structurally similar, the alternatives vary in cost, length, and alignment: one version keeps the existing alignment; another proposes a curved, upstream alignment, and the last, a parallel parallel downstream alignment that, unlike the others, impacts Topsham properties along the banks.
Engineers called the steel girder bridge the most cost-effective option because of its low maintenance cost. Though T.Y. Lin could not provide specific figures for the cost of maintaining a new bridge, it would be substantially lower than the rehabilitated options, and require fewer paint jobs and no major structural repairs.
In the case of one design, lifetime maintenance of a new bridge increases the overall cost by only $700,000.
For Shattuck, the cost analysis makes the choice clear.
He said that rehabilitating the bridge is “socially irresponsible” to taxpayers around the state, who would be stuck with a bill for for Brunswick and Topsham to enjoy a “historic tchotchke.”
Cassie Chase of the Federal Highway Administration, center, leads an Oct. 27 Topsham meeting on the eligibility of the Frank J. Wood Bridge for the National Register of Historic Places.
If the Federal Highway Administration recommends replacing the Frank J. Wood Bridge, the Maine Department of Transportation might replace the structure with a steel girder bridge depicted in this rendering.
Edited 11/8 to correct the date of the meeting, which took place Oct. 27. Edited 12/27 to clarify that it remains unclear whether a listing on the register would prevent replacement.