LOS ANGELES TIMES
WII)NESIAY, JUNE 2, 1999 A5
Great Bridge, but Is It History?
In America's oldest city,
safety and preservation
issues meet on a landmark
span that's deteriorating
and straining under
traffic, shipping demands.
By MIKE CLARY
TIMES STAFF WRITER
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla.-
Founded in 1565, this is
America's oldest city. And, not
surprisingly, some of it is crum-
bling with age.
The 300-year-old Castillo de
San Marcos National Monument,
for example, is in such bad shape
from water damage and cracking
walls that officials have asked
Congress for $3 million to make
But it is the condition of a
much newer landmark, the
SBridge of Lions, that has sparked
a heated debate over preserva-
tion-shaking the Southern tran-
quillity of this colonial city.
Built in 1927 to link the city's
downtown with the beaches of
Anastasia Island, the Bridge of
Lions spans the Matanzas River
in a graceful arc of Mediterra-
nean Revival-style architecture.
At its center are four tile-roofed
towers that serve as counter-
weights to the drawbridge.
Guarding the entrance of the
bridge at the east are two mas-
sive marble lions.
Often called one of the South's
most handsome spans, the bridge
is listed on the National Register
of Historic Places.
But it is also a safety hazard,
critics say, with its two narrow
lanes inadequate to handle the up
to 25,000 vehicles a day that cross
between downtown and the is-
land's booming residential and
The drawbridge also reaches
over the busy Intracoastal
Waterway, and its substandard
76-foot-wide clearance poses a
danger to the yachts, tugboats
and barges. Since 1982, accord-
ing to the Coast Guard, the
bridge has been hit by barges at
least 30 times. When the bridge
opens three times an hour to
allow boats to pass through,
traffic can back up for miles.
Many here, including three of
the five City Council members,
want the bridge torn down and
MIKE CLARY / Los Angeles'Times
"This city lives off its history .. ," says historian William Adams
about a push to tear down the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine, Fla.
"I cross that bridge up to 10
times a (lay, and it's a nightmare
every time," said ex-Mayor
Eddie Mussallem, who owns
businesses on both sides of the
span. "It is literally falling apart.
When that bridge collapses, my
car is going to be on it, I know.
What terrifies preservation-
ists, however, is talk of destruc-
tion. "The safety issue is balo-
ney," historian William Adams
said. "This city lives off its
history, and for us to tear down
that history sends a terrible
Laura Kammerer of Florida's
Bureau of Historic Preservation
calls the Bridge of Lions "the
most significant bridge in
Florida in terms of architectural
style. It's the state's best-known
bridge. Saving it is our top
priority right now." In fact, the
National Trust for Historic Pres-
ervation lists the bridge as one of
the most endangered structures
in the nation.
Mussallem argues that in a city
as old as St. Augustine, the
Bridge of Lions is not historic.
"When it gets to be 200 years
old, then we get to talking his-
torical," the 74-year-old ex-
mayor said. "That bridge is not
as old as I am."
In a report released earlier this
year, the state's Department of
Transportation proposed two so-
lutions: replace the bridge or
rehabilitate it. Estimated cost:
But even DOT project engi-
neer Bill Henderson admits there
is no perfect solution. A replace-
ment bridge still would provide
space for only two lanes of
traffic, albeit slightly wider
lanes. And a rehabilitated bridge
may not meet minimum Coast
Guard clearance standards for
boat traffic. Either option could
cost the structure its National
Historic Register listing.
The controversy over the
bridge is likely to reach full boil
at a public hearing next week.
The DOT, said Henderson, ex-
pects to make a final decision
"We are assigned to provide
safe and efficient transportation,"
Henderson said. "The Coast
Guard is to provide reasonable
navigation. And the state's job is
to preserve historical resources.
All three come to a head with this
"We're still hoping to work
something out," he added. "But
whatever we do, the ultimate
decision will not please everyone
in St. Augustine."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue
contributed to this story.