The Bridges of Pittsburgh: David McCullough Bridge

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As historian David McCullough celebrated his 80th birthday in his native Pittsburgh, state and local officials renamed the 16th Street Bridge in his honor during a July 7 ceremony.

The distinguished author of "Truman," "John Adams" and "The Path Between the Seas," Mr. McCullough also recounted the daunting challenges of building the Brooklyn Bridge in his 1972 work, "The Great Bridge."

A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

PG Interactive: Pittsburgh's Bridges | Allegheny River

Click image above for an interactive tour of Pittsburgh's bridges across the Allegheny River, with histories and details about each.

Now that it is 90 years old, the David McCullough Bridge bears the name of the man who is, perhaps, the city's best-known and most honored storyteller.

The earlier bridges on this site were more about function than fanfare. The first, a covered structure built in 1837, stretched from Chestnut Street and River Avenue in the city of Allegheny to what was then called Bayardstown. A fire destroyed its superstructure in 1851.

A new, open bridge was built on the old piers in 1854 to serve pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and wagons. A flood in 1865 destroyed part of that structure, but it was rebuilt and became a toll bridge.

Allegheny County commissioners paid $243,303 for the bridge in 1911 and eliminated tolls. In 1918, a fire burned the superstructure. By that time, the bridge was not high enough to meet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements for navigation so the county was forced to build a new bridge.

When the current bridge opened in 1923, few people were more excited than Howard Heinz. A son of the family company's enterprising founder, Howard Heinz hosted a banquet for North Side businessmen in the Heinz plant auditorium to celebrate the new bridge that linked his growing company to the Strip District.

This symphony of steel arches and stone piers cost $1.25 million and was designed by the New York architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore.

Homer Gage Balcom, a structural engineer with Warren & Wetmore, visited Pittsburgh in 1919 to discuss the current bridge's design with Allegheny County's commissioners, who wanted it to be "beautiful as well as ornamental," the Pittsburgh Leader reported. Balcom went on to design the Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, making him the country's best-known engineer.

The bridge piers are topped by bronze sea horses and spheres encircled with zodiac signs. The sculptures were created by Italian-born artist Leo Lentelli, who died in 1952 but whose work is visible at Rockefeller Center and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

When the bridge's steel trusses were painted in September 1978 at a cost of $627,000, the contractor's workers covered the bronze horses on the south piers with five coats of dark lacquer.

That prompted a thoughtful column by Donald Miller, then the Post-Gazette's art and architecture critic. He noted that it was a mistake to paint the horses' "self-protective blue-green verdigris patination -- that fine crust caused by natural oxidation on copper and bronze."

In October 1981, a $1.65 million reconstruction of the bridge began, and it closed for six months while workers installed a new, watertight concrete deck and expansion dams. In 2002, the bridge closed for nearly a year as it underwent $9.8 million worth of repairs.

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