Perhaps you’ve seen the old photos. Women with parasols, accompanied by men in top hats stroll the nearly tree-less paths along the bluff in Downtown Milwaukee. In some of them you can see the bridge skirting above the train tracks before almost stepping down, headed north, along the lakefront.
Clusters of illuminated globes adorned the bridge every few yards, offering light, but also a classic 1920s decorative touch.
The Lincoln Memorial Bridge was opened in 1926 with much fanfare – as always seems to be the case according old news reports of such civic events – and according to one article, written later, "they came by the tens of thousands," to witness Mayor Daniel Hoan officially christen the bridge and the sparkling new lakefront drive.
Folks were dancing, navy ships on the lake rang their bells and factories around town tooted their horns. On an island just off the park more than 100 "imported Chippewa Indians" set up a camp suggestive of the scene that confronted the park’s namesake, Solomon Juneau, when he arrived in Milli-wa-kay more than a century earlier.
By the time the bridge celebrated its 50th birthday, however, it appeared to have been a shambles. Dean Jensen wrote in the same 1976 Milwaukee Sentinel article referenced above that, "it’s a good thing Mayor Hoan isn’t around today. He’d probably stomp his fine fedora and howl so loud the cornices would drop off City Hall if he had to see the Lincoln Bridge today, with barricades and telephone poles used to close off the crumbling gateway to the city’s most spectacular setting – the lakefront."
By the mid-1970s, the bridge and its future were a major debate in Milwaukee, which was still in a fit of freeway frenzy.
The bridge had been closed to traffic in 1970, but after some repairs was later reopened.
In 1974, a Journal headline declared, "Pieces Fall Off Lincoln Memorial Bridge, but It’s Safe." Though it said, "pieces continue to fall" from the bridge, a park maintenance crew that had set up shop in a wooden structure below the span had to be relocated. Sure, concrete was falling, but, "there is no immediate danger to traffic," according to the director of the County’s public works department.
Soon the bridge was closed to traffic once again, cutting off a major access route to the lakefront and the War Memorial Center and Milwaukee Art Museum (then the Milwaukee Art Center), and helping snarl traffic down around Michigan and Clybourn Streets.
By 1976, County Supervisor Harout O. Sanasarian had suggested replacing the bridge with a new span that would also include a pedestrian mall.
But, surprise, surprise, delay followed inaction followed delay and one can almost feel the yawn of boredom and the yelp of frustration in the 1979 Sentinel headline that read, "Lincoln Memorial Bridge Action Delayed Again."
The mall idea didn’t materialize and in 1978 some pols suggested linking the reconstruction of the tattered bridge with the "stub ends" of 794 a few blocks south, effectively turning Lincoln Memorial Drive into an extension of the freeway.
This, the Sentinel rightfully moaned was another attempt to "overload a bridge with politics." At the same time County Exec Bill O’Donnell hatched a new "mall" plan called Juneau Vista Park.
The proposal hints an idea similar to what later transpired with the construction of O’Donnell Park, but on a much larger scale, creating a 39-acre park outside the War Memorial that extended over the road below and connecting to the bluff and running all the way to Prospect Avenue.
But there was more to it than that and the Journal called O’Donnell’s idea, "essentially a rehash of the freeway plan he first proposed in 1975. That’s because the proposal also called for creating two tunnels.
One would accommodate traffic on Lincoln Memorial Drive and the other would follow the old railroad right of way (now a bike path) as part of a freeway that would exit the tunnel around Ogden Avenue and travel north along the right of way to Hampton and Santa Monica, where it would "close the loop" by connecting with I-43.
Freeway opponents pushed to have the Lincoln Memorial Bridge rebuilt as it was, effectively preventing a lakefront freeway by limiting the width of the roadway beneath it. Fortunately – if you ask me – those voices won out.
By 1981 the new bridge was was being demolished, except for a single section of retaining wall that survives just north of the bridge on the west side of Lincoln Memorial Drive, at the bottom of the bluff. Another short segment that survived the rebuild, south of the bridge, was demolished as part of the O'Donnell Park construction in the 1990s.
At the same the the Water Tower Landmark Trust hatched a plan to save some of the historic lighting elements and masonry from the old bridge. The group began to raise funds to use the salvaged items to create a monument.
In 1982, the new bridge was under construction and the WTLT had acquired the stone and the fixtures and began raising money via house tours and other events to create the monument in the triangle bounded by Lake Drive, Windsor Place and Lafayette Place.
That work – along with navigating the city budget, approval by the Historic Preservation Commission and negotiating contracts with architects, the city and contractors – led to the construction of the monument in 1987.
Designed by Maher and Sazama Architects, the monument features a cluster of globes resting on a copper finial atop a masonry pillar. At each of the three corners, a column from the bridge is capped with a larger, single lighted globe. The entire triangle – engulfed by a planting of low evergreens – is bordered by a black chain laced through posts topped with black balls that mimic the light fixtures above.
A plaque mounted on the west side of the triangle reads:
There is no reference to the Lincoln Memorial Bridge. But, please, don’t tell Daniel Hoan, lest he stomp his hat. We can’t afford to loosen anything else on the exterior of City Hall.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.