Bridge to Nowhere! A Brief History of the Hoan Bridge, Part I.

Sep. 8, 2016
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It has become one of Milwaukee’s most recognizable landmarks, but for several years it seemed as though the Hoan Bridge would come to symbolize nothing more than a monumental failure and one the worst ideas in the Cream City’s history. Many still recall it as “the bridge to nowhere,” but few remember the longer history of the city’s struggle to bridge the waters that connected the rivers with Lake Michigan.

The desire for a cross-channel bridge at the lakefront dates back to at least 1930. The idea was to built a high-rise bridge to connect Lincoln Memorial Drive, which ended at Mason Street at that time, to Jones Island and possibly as far south as Bay Street. But such an extensive project would have been costly and various proposals for the bridge bounced between county and state agencies before the city applied for federal funding on the project in 1936.

 The city wanted to connect downtown with Jones Island as far back as the 1930s.

But what might have been a stunning New Deal project never came to be and the bridge plan was mostly dormant until the 1950s. The new proposal called for a lift bridge to connect Lincoln and Jones Island. Details on the plan were scarce, but the estimated cost was in the tens of millions of dollars. Again, no governing body was willing to foot the bill and the plan stalled.

By the early 1960s, however, the city had a potential solution to the long-standing issue of financing a bridge project. With the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 promising 90% funding from the federal government for interstate highway projects, the city could get the feds to foot the bulk of the bill for the bridge if it could be made a part of the sprawling series of highways being planned for southeastern Wisconsin. Interstate spurs had already been planned that would cross the Milwaukee River in downtown. If these could be formed into a downtown loop that reached the lakefront, a southern connection to the south shore could be added, which would necessitate a cross-channel bridge.

While the idea of a concrete and steel noose around downtown Milwaukee seems less than ideal today, in the early 1960s, it was seen as the way of the future for the city. Downtown was still the commercial center of the greater Milwaukee area, but people were living ever increasingly further away from the city center. To link downtown to outlying residential areas with expressways, it was thought that both jobs and commerce could be retained in the city. The southern extension would also connect Bay View and the southshore areas with downtown, replacing the often slow and laborious journey between the areas via city streets with a high-speed commute across a high-rise lakefront bridge. Proponents of the plan even dreamed of sky-scraping apartment towers replacing the aging homes of the southshore and offering attractive lake views for the upper class business leaders who worked downtown.

In 1963, the city formally applied for federal aid to add an expressway link that would cut through Juneau Park and connect Lincoln Memorial to a sweeping bridge that would rise up from Clybourn Street, cross the channel, and connect to South Superior Street in Bay View. The city was confident that increased traffic along the lakefront from the passenger dock (where Discovery World is currently located), the recently opened War Memorial Building, and the newly increased port traffic (the St. Lawrence Seaway had just been completed in 1959) would be more than enough to necessitate the expanded highway system. It was proposed that the span be known as the “Red Arrow Bridge,” in honor of the famous 32nd Infantry Division.

The city’s request was approved the following year. Mayor Henry Maier praised the new plan, saying “It not only unifies the south side with the rest of the city, but undoubtedly will open new avenues for development of our growing city.” The opinion among other city leaders was nearly all positive. The estimated cost of the project was $50 million and it was speculated that the bridge would be ready for use in 1969.

But Milwaukee did not want just any bridge to span the harbor. In a time when car ferries and passenger boats were still common sights on the lakefront, all agreed that the bridge should be something of a gateway to the city, a grand entrance that – with the 350 foot tall clock tower of City Hall still the tallest building in the city – would instantly become one of the most prominent features of a less than breathtaking skyline.

 Frank Lloyd Wright’s never-built “Butterfly Bridge.”

Congressman Henry Ruess wanted a design along the lines of the Butterfly Bridge of Frank Lloyd Wright or the sculpted tube of Paolo Soleri. “A truly remarkable bridge that would lift men’s spirits while it serves practical means.” Milwaukee County officials wanted a bridge that would offer a “clear and unobstructed views of the city and harbor” for drivers and passengers. In 1965, a series of design finalists were chosen based on their economy, beauty, and usefulness. While the concepts tended more towards the practical than radical, they each took serious the idea of the bridge acting as a “gateway to Milwaukee.” Designs featured aluminum plating that hid girders and seemed to promise a modernistic elegance and simplicity. Renditions showed green spaces and tidy roads and walkways beneath the bridge, which would rise majestically and unobtrusively from the landscape.

But before the final design could be chosen, the federal government reversed course on the project. The south end of the bridge, the feds declared, needed to lead to more than just Bay View in order for it be considered a legitimate piece of the interstate system. They were still willing to pay 90% on the bridge, but they wanted its south end to be extended a bit… just enough to make it a useful piece to the system. The feds’ desired end point for the freeway? Chicago.

Check back next week for Part II!


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