What makes the Colorado Street Bridge so special?
Why does it still attract national, even worldwide attention?
As everyone from these parts knows, the bridge has become infamous for the more than 150 people jumping from it to their deaths since the 149-foot tall and more than 1,400-foot long concrete curvilinear structure — the first bridge of its kind in the nation — was built in 1913.
But perhaps what is even better known is what people who use it see every day — a beautifully crafted work of functional architectural art, one that has inspired the works of painters, poets, writers and photographers for a full century.
Despite the history of tragedy associated with the bridge, there is also much to celebrate about the beloved landmark.
In anticipation of the Colorado Street Bridge Centennial and the city of Pasadena’s 127th anniversary celebration on Saturday, titled “Happy Birthday Pasadena: Celebrating Bridges,” the Pasadena Museum of History has teamed up with photographer Tavo Olmos, who documented the $27.4 million restoration project in 1993. Those repairs involved stripping the bridge of its old deck and deteriorated concrete and exposing its old ribs before restoring it to its former glory.
The photographs will be featured at the museum on Saturday as “a catalyst to explore organizations that ‘bridge’ aspects of Pasadena’s vibrant community and culture,” according to a press release from the Pasadena Central Library.
A collectable book of Olmos’ photographs, featuring contributions by the principals who guided the restoration project to fruition, will be published by Balcony Press and available this summer, the release continued. In addition, a major exhibition on the Colorado Street Bridge — including these images and many more photographs, artwork and bridge-related objects — will open in November at the Pasadena Museum of History.
While expressing concerns about the darker side of the bridge’s reputation, City Councilman Steve Madison, whose district includes the bridge, pointed out that the bridge has operated over all this time as a road from which riches flow to Pasadena’s shopping and entertainment district, and beyond.
“It’s enhanced our community a great deal,” said Madison. “Its beauty has been the subject of a lot of paintings, and it’s a working bridge, not just a piece of art.”
Perhaps that is what is so attractive and special about the Colorado Street Bridge: Its simplistic functionality coupled with its singular example of grandiose beauty.
With its graceful Beaux Arts arches, it is at once a marvel of great engineering and a landscape painter’s pinnacle of desire. For those not so artistically inclined, it is also a lot of fun to drive, bicycle or walk over.
“It’s a local transportation link, but also a regional link,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, an organization that has played a pivotal role in the bridge’s preservation and upkeep. “It’s all part of the atmosphere and announces that you’re entering the historic part of the city,” she said of the Old Pasadena business district, located a few blocks from the bridge’s eastern entrance. “It shows that we care about that and you’re in a unique place.”
Terry LeMonchek, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, said she sees the bridge as both timeless and a symbol of hope.
“The thing that’s really wonderful about the bridge is that it’s an elegant statement about Pasadena’s past, both architecturally and historically,” LeMonchek said. By the same token, however, “You can stand on the bridge and see [Jet Propulsion Laboratory], which is like looking into the future,” she said. “That, to me, is Pasadena in its essence.”
“We’re very fortunate in Pasadena,” said former Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz. “We have some great historical structures and buildings. The bridge is really kind of the heart of the city. It’s known all over the world, and it just makes you so proud to know something in Pasadena is that important worldwide. It creates our culture, even our soul, as a city.”