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Old Bridge, New Cliques

Frank J. Wood Bridge
shutterstock | Jacques Durocher

When is a local landmark worth saving? In Brunswick and Topsham, the fate of the adored but dilapidated Green Bridge has residents at loggerheads.

By Carly Berlin
When the dam between Brunswick and Topsham opens, the Androscoggin River rushes over rocks and squeezes between steep banks, its sheer cascading force drowning out traffic on the Frank J. Wood Bridge above. Slung low across the water, with three arched spans, the bridge is a local icon. It was built in 1932, and its rusty steel trusses echo a time when the mills on either side still churned out paper and textiles. Photographers love how it frames sunsets and how, at night, electric light glints off the water below. Its profile adorned the local phone book last year. On Snapchat, it’s Brunswick’s “geofilter” stamp. All of which is why, even though the bridge has fallen into serious disrepair, a group of residents is fighting to save it from demolition.

John Graham is president of the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, a nonprofit formed last year, and he thinks the Maine Department of Transportation has unfairly targeted the beloved bridge from the start. “My wife is from Great Britain, and they still have bridges from the 1700s carrying traffic,” he points out. “They have a different sense of value in historical things. They plan on their bridges lasting forever.”

By day, Graham works as a commercial real estate broker and maple syrup producer. Originally from Weld, he moved from Portland to Topsham four years ago, drawn by the old homes and walkability. The bridge, he says, was also a big selling point.

“Why not preserve it?” he asks. “It’s there. It’s historic. It really is the focal point of Brunswick and Topsham. When you see a picture of that bridge and the two mills surrounding it, you immediately know where you are.”

Like many Maine bridges, the Frank J. Wood — better known locally as the Green Bridge, for its now-peeling paint job — needs attention at a time when the state’s infrastructure budget is pinched. More than half of our bridges are at least 50 years old, and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 15 percent are in urgently bad shape, the Green Bridge among them. The floor system is failing, crossbeams are badly deteriorated, and sidewalk supports have corroded away. MDOT has imposed a new load limit, and stopgap repairs necessitate intermittent lane closures. While rehabbing the Green Bridge is feasible, MDOT says it would cost more than building a new one.

When I met Graham for coffee, just up the road from the bridge, we happened to sit a few tables over from Linda Smith and John Shattuck, respectively the Brunswick and Topsham directors of economic development and both supporters of replacing the bridge. Graham leaned in close, wary of being overheard. He doesn’t buy MDOT’s math, and he thinks the state is rushing toward the easiest solution at the expense of the site’s aesthetic and historic character. The disagreement has turned into a bitter public spat, with angry newspaper op-eds and community meetings that devolve into shouting matches. “The new bridge they’re designing is just flat concrete,” Graham complained, sitting with his back to his opponents. “It looks exactly like the bridges you see across the turnpike, from Maine to California, say, to Japan. There’s nothing unique about it.”

He allowed, though, that not everyone shares his particular concerns. “There are people,” he said, “who don’t get the history, who just think the bridge is going to fall down. And they say that when it falls down and people die, it’s going to be on our shoulders.”

Graham’s group, the Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, has 10 committed members who, for the past year, have convened regular strategy sessions at Steve Stern and Arlene Morris’s Brunswick home. Stern is a retired engineer, Morris an artist whose studio sits just across the Green Bridge.

There is a distinction between preserving because something is familiar and because it’s historically significant.

— John Shattuck, Topsham Economic Development Director

“I believe in the historic character of my community,” architectural historian Scott Hanson proclaimed at a recent meeting, the other attendees nodding their assent. “The nexus of why these communities exist here is the water power of the river combined with the crossing of the river.” Hanson cited a Brookings Institution report from 2006 on the state economy: “Maine must vigorously protect and enhance its brand while stimulating business innovation,” the report read. And the bridge, Hanson said, is part of that brand. “People are coming for the really special sense of place that’s here.”

“I don’t want people from away to bring what they tried to run away from,” Stern added. “That’s what’s happening. It’s sad.”

John Shattuck, the Topsham economic development director, is one such from-away — technically. He’s lived in Maine for 45 years even though he originally hails from New York City. But where he grew up isn’t what most irks the Friends. Rather, it’s that he thinks the bridge is nothing special, either historically or aesthetically.

When the state commissioned the bridge during the Great Depression, Shattuck says, cost was the primary concern. “Maine had a highly dispersed population and a gazillion rivers to cross. The truss style was dying — this bridge here is an example of the end of that technology, and it’s not a particularly prepossessing example. This is the most clunking, heavy-set, low-tech version out there.”

“There is a distinction,” he added, “between preserving because something is familiar and because it’s historically significant. We all know this bridge, but it’s actually only been here for a human lifetime.”

That tension between old and new has flared up with bridges across the state — in just the past few years, for instance, residents of South Bristol and Kittery have resisted plans to remove longstanding spans and squabbled over what ought to replace them. “We do a lot of projects, and they often get passionate,” one MDOT employee told me with a touch of resignation. “We understand that people really like their town bridge.”

An earlier controversy, Shattuck noted, played out with the former Waldo-Hancock Bridge, where Route 1 crosses the Penobscot River near Bucksport. That bridge — a stylistic predecessor to the Triborough and Golden Gate bridges — was completed a year before the Green Bridge, and the American Institute of Steel Construction named it the year’s “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge.” Locals loved it.

At community meetings, people went from wanting to throw rotten tomatoes at us to saying, ‘Wow, this is cool.’

— Cheryl Maze, quoted in the New York Times in 2007 about designing the penobscot narrows bridge

But in 2006, MDOT discovered that the suspension cables had deteriorated beyond repair. Replacement plans moved rapidly, despite local opposition. Gradually, though, residents came around to the new design, which boasted grand obelisk towers and a 100-mile-view observation deck.

“At community meetings,” a member of the bridge’s engineering firm recalled to the New York Times, “people went from wanting to throw rotten tomatoes at us to saying, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ ”

This spring, officials from federal and state agencies held a public meeting about the fate of the Green Bridge. The MDOT project manager outlined options: put a new bridge on the existing base, build an entirely new bridge, or rehab the existing one. A full replacement, according to the state, would cost $13 million — the cheapest option, and one that would both allow for better pedestrian and cyclist access and require less long-term maintenance.

When the presentation ended without public comment, the crowd stewed and shouted at the vacated podium.

“I want to have a discussion!”

“Citizens deserve better!”

“It’s a loaded gun — loaded propaganda!”

Phinney White, a member of Friends of the Frank J. Wood Bridge, stepped to the vacated mic and delivered a prepared rebuttal. The sound had already been turned off, but he persisted nonetheless. Afterward, looking deflated, he sighed: “This is rigged.”

Incidentally, Frank Wood, the bridge’s namesake, once found himself in a similar position. In the early 20th century, with the Topsham–Brunswick crossing in bad shape, the State Highway Commission planned to put a new bridge on the existing alignment, which connected to mill property rather than public property. Wood — a local farmer, factory worker, and civic activist — had the idea to relocate the bridge so that it instead connected the towns’ main streets. The virtue of his proposal wasn’t immediately recognized, Brunswick town records note, but “after much public debate, the state adopted Wood’s idea.”

Graham and the rest of the Friends haven’t been as fortunate. MDOT announced in June that it would move forward with plans to replace the bridge, pending an environmental review process that could be wrapped up as early as the end of this year. And an advisory group of Brunswick and Topsham residents and town officials is already working with the state’s engineering firm to develop design ideas.

Still, construction likely wouldn’t start until 2019. So meanwhile, the Friends aren’t giving up. They’re trying to win protected historic status for the bridge. They also plan to hire an engineering firm to reevaluate — and hopefully rebut — the state’s cost projections. And if all else fails, they’ve threatened to sue in federal court to halt the project. Graham is reluctant to even entertain the notion of defeat. But if the Green Bridge has to come down, he says, then he’d pressure MDOT to at least make sure the replacement design has some architectural character of its own.

Either way, he says, “We need to be fighting for something unique — something that, in 75 or 100 years, people are still going to fight to keep.”