BY BRIAN LIBBY
Yesterday a work assignment brought me unexpectedly to the St. Johns neighborhood, a place I've passed through numerous times before but rarely have stopped for. On this occasion, encouraged by a blue-skied late winter afternoon, I decided to peruse this outer enclave of North Portland and particularly the gorgeous bridge that shares its name.
The timing was ideal. As I parked on Lombard Street, a thoroughfare to the rest of the city that becomes a small Main Street in the St. Johns neighborhood, a red brick schoolhouse had just let out and a stream of yellow buses was about to enter the fray. Winter may usually be cloudy, gray and rainy in the Northwest, but when the sun does come out, the lower sun angle brings vibrant afternoon light: with the vivid hues of Technicolor but the extreme light and shadow of film noir. My pictures came back looking like there was a polarizing filter on the lens to make the pictures higher contrast, but I actually lost the lens a few weeks ago. Real life looked like one had a pair of sunglasses on, at least when you're used to the gray.
St. Johns is uncommon as a neighborhood. It's far enough from the city center to be considered a suburb (and was actually an incorporated town of its own), but there aren't any of the pedestrian-unfriendly, Robert Moses style wide avenues and freeways. Sure, technically Highway 30 is Lombard, and downtown St. Johns indeed has struggled for years with the stream of big trucks and vehicles passing through from the industrial zone across the Willamette River. Yet because the scale of the streets and surrounding buildings is small, it doesn't feel suburban so much as the small town it used to be.
Growing up in McMinnville, we had a similarly quaint downtown, but at the time I was it was a pleasure to stroll Lombard and its succession of local business like the Man's Shop or the James John Cafe St. John's Cafe, the latter of which exists just two doors down from a Starbucks but, despite a lesser amount of business, luckily continues to thrive (with the help of superior ground Stumptown and an ambiance that includes a deer head mounted below an ornate ceiling).
The star attraction of this visit, though, was a walk over the St. Johns bridge, that most beautiful if out-of-the-way Portland bridges. After living for nearly 14 years in Portland and spending roughly 33 of my 38 years in Oregon, this was actually my first time walking across this circa-1931 span. But the experience was exhilarating, a little scary at times, and maybe even gave a touch of the sublime.
Its completion in 1931 is worth noting. Coming amidst the Great Depression, it was an important symbol: a public building that expressed the very best of us - creatively, societally - just when the times most needed such an inspiring gesture. Construction on the St. Johns Bridge actually began just one month before the stock market crash of 1929 that began the Depression, but the building of it employed many Oregonians.
Designed by engineer David B. Steinman of the New York firm Robinson & Steinman, the St. Johns Bridge is the only suspension bridge in the Willamette Valley and one of only three public highway suspension bridges in Oregon. It's also particularly dramatic for its setting and form. It's tall enough to let the biggest ships pass through without needing a draw bridge: its foundational element is two 408 foot tall Gothic-style towers, giving way to a 1,207 foot center span and a total length of 2,067 feet: nearly half a mile.
The proposal for a bridge initially met skepticism in given St. Johns' distance (over five miles) from the city center. But an intense grassroots lobbying effort helped build support; according to Wikipedia it included a vaudeville-style show performed at grange halls and schools throughout the county. Ironically, given how this type of bridge is today often viewed as extravagant, a suspension bridge was selected due to an estimated $640,000 savings in construction costs.
At the time of its completion, the bridge had the highest clearance in the nation as well as the longest prefabricated steel cable rope strands, the tallest steel frame piers of reinforced concrete,the first application of aviation clearance lights to the towers, and the longest suspension span west of Detroit, Michigan.
In 2006 the Oregon Department of Transportation began a $38 million rehabilitation including replacement of the deck, repainting of the towers, and improved access for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. I can't imagine what it must have been like before the restoration to walk on the bridge, because being a pedestrian there yesterday felt more than hair raising enough. Which is not to say it felt faulty or unsafe. It's just that you're walking on a sidewalk no wider than one in any residential neighborhood with automobiles whizzing by at 50 miles an hour on one side and a 300-foot drop on the other with only a chest-high, see-through fence separating one from a fall. All the while, larger vehicles going by make the ground beneath you shake.
All that said, being in the middle of the Willamette River on a gorgeous sunny day, atop this most delicately and artfully rendered work of engineering in the city, was an unequivocal thrill. The West Hills were standing forth to the west, snow-capped Mt. Hood to the east, and downtown Portland to the south. And straight below was the river itself. I've always thought of the St. John's Bridge as a kind of river gateway into the city, which made it all the more appropriate that two massive barges were moving underneath like Star Destroyers as watercraft.
It's merely a coincidence that another potential landmark Portland bridge is in some of its final planning stages as we speak. Jeff Jahn recently wrote about the process on PORT, including a short list of potential bridge types.
Unfortunately, the majestic suspension bridge is almost assuredly going to be eliminated from contention because it would interfere with Pearson Airfield, the antiquated, toy-sized and completely unnecessary Vancouver waterfront airstrip. Yet the Columbia Crossing becoming a suspension bridge is not the point so much as embracing the opportunity and the value of a river crossing that inspires someone more than 80 years after it was built - the kind of bridge that great enough to inspire us as much as the uncommonly beautiful landscape in which it is constructed.
Not every bridge can be a St. Johns Bridge, beloved and inspiring. Yet if you ask me to drive five miles out of Portland in any direction, this bridge and the small-scaled neighborhood beside it would always beat out any suburban or urban enclave in the metro area.
The St. Johns bridge may wobble when you're standing on it and an BJ & The Bear or Karl Malone drive by in an 18 wheeler, but - like a more slender Golden Gate Bridge - it towers elegantly over water and land like few built structures of any kind in Oregon or, arguably, America.