A Restoration of City Bridges and a Renewal of Civic Faith

MERRILL BUTLER, MAN OF MODESTY, IS ELUDING US EVEN NOW. His son, daughter-in-law and I have divided the ranks and files of graves on a hilltop at Forest Lawn in Glendale and walk in methodical pursuit of him.

After 30 minutes, Merrill Butler Jr. calls out, "Here we are. Here he is."

Butler, who is 75, drops to all fours and brushes away dried grass clippings from the grave marker; he blows detritus from the lettering on the weathered bronze tablet, which reads:

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Merrill Butler

1891-1963

Beloved Husband

Devoted Father

Duty-Honor-Country

Family-Faith

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Not a single word about the bridges, the crowning achievement of Merrill Butler's 40 years of service to the people of Los Angeles, and his enduring legacy to them.

As the city's Engineer for Bridges and Structures, Butler guided the construction of nine extraordinarily graceful concrete-arch bridges over the Los Angeles River between 1923 and 1933.

The bridges--1st Street, 4th Street, 6th Street, 7th Street, 9th Street, Spring Street, Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard (formerly Macy Street), Olympic Boulevard and Glendale-Hyperion--were built to relieve congestion at the river, where pedestrian, automobile and trolley traffic intersected with copious railroad activity. The new spans replaced ugly, rusting, but easily manufactured iron-truss structures.

Under Butler's guiding hand, the new bridges were not to be mere efficient conveyors of traffic, but stylish, unique civic monuments that would uplift the populace and engender pride in the expanding city. They were designed, variously, in neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, Streamline Moderne and Gothic Revival styles. Many incorporated concrete benches and graceful balconies where pedestrians could rest and look out on the panorama of city, mountains and river (the L.A. River had not yet been entombed in concrete).

"It was just stunning that the city would have built them," says California bridge historian Stephen D. Mikesell, who surveyed all of the historic bridges in the state during the mid-1980s. "In the number of beautiful bridges per square mile, I don't know where in the world you would find that many, and I was struck by how many people just didn't know about them, even in L.A."

It's understandable why Merrill Butler's bridges escape the notice of present-day Angelenos. Traffic over them nowadays is relatively light, the freeway system having absorbed the lion's share. In some instances, the bridges' decorative balusters and other ornamentation were stripped away or compromised (witness the modern "gooseneck" freeway lamps tied onto the crosshatched Art Deco concrete light standards of the 6th Street Bridge).

Moreover, the full glory of the bridges was meant to be seen not from above, but from below, at the level of the railroad tracks that once carried millions of people into and out of the city. It is a view to which very few people are now exposed.

The modern realities of Los Angeles have crowded the bridges toward obscurity. Massive DWP electrical towers hide the downriver view of the Spanish Colonial-style Cesar E. Chavez Bridge's ornate pylons, with their twisting Moorish columns. Auto-wrecking yards and a windowless warehouse nudge its flanks on the river's east bank.

The ground-level view of the gracefully curving 6th Street Bridge, at almost 3,500 feet, the longest and grandest of Butler's bridges, is disrupted by electrical towers, piles of rusting metal and industrial silos.

Butler and his engineers intended the beautiful Glendale-Hyperion Bridge to have green parkland pass beneath it along the river. Today eight lanes of the 5 Freeway are there instead.

An irony here: The bridges were built to speed the growth of Los Angeles, and that growth has all but overwhelmed them. When Butler and his team of engineers were delivering these gifts to the city, its population was but one-third its present size.

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MERRILL BUTLER WAS BORN IN UPSTATE NEW YORK AND GRADUATED from the old Los Angeles Polytechnic High School downtown. He never went to college, but learned civil engineering via correspondence courses.

During his four decades with the Bureau of Engineering, he was responsible for designing numerous structures, including the river bridges, the Pasadena Freeway tunnels and the original Hyperion sewage treatment plant.

The day he turned 70 and was required to retire, he made a point of putting in a full workday. When the bridge builder died two years later, The Times neglected to run an obituary on him, though 700 people attended his funeral.

"My father was as modest a man as you'd ever meet," says Merrill Butler Jr., a retired Newport Beach developer and Butler's only child. "In his opinion, being a civil servant was a very noble profession. He was proud of working for the city and proud of the things the Bureau of Engineering did. His ethics were unassailable. I always wanted to be like my dad. People always told me, 'If you grow up to be half the man your father is . . . .' "

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IN A HAPPY CONFLUENCE OF NECESSITY AND AESTHETIC OPPORTUNITY, 15 historic bridges in the city, including all but two of Merrill Butler's river bridges, have been seismically retrofitted, at a cost of $76 million. Because all are on the National Register of Historic Places, their retrofitting had to include preserving or restoring their historic features if possible.

Only the Sixth Street and Glendale-Hyperion bridges remain to be done, and they are two very big jobs. Bureau of Engineering construction manager Amid Habbal estimates that it will cost as much as $45 million to redo Glendale-Hyperion and $35 million to strengthen and restore the 6th Street Bridge.

The bridge that required the most work was North Broadway, the oldest span, and clearly the inspiration for all of Butler's bridges. Over the years its massive Classical Revival-style pylons and balusters and its four-globe light standards had been ripped out and replaced by tubular guard rails and gooseneck lamps.

To restore the 1910-vintage bridge, engineers had to refer to the original drawings and improvise the fabrication of the missing ornamentation. The end product, rededicated last March, is stunning.

North Broadway and the other bridge restorations had an unexpected effect on the city engineers who worked on them.

"Usually we're more concerned with getting the job done, saving money, moving on to the next project," Habbal says. "But on projects like North Broadway and Olympic, we had to spend a lot of time looking at the balusters and the railings and the pylons and the finish on the surfaces. This is something new to us. We normally don't pay much attention to such things, but after we put it up, we became attached to it. I've done many projects, but I point with special pride now and say, 'I did North Broadway. I did 7th Street.' "

The modern engineers clearly were touched by the hand of Merrill Butler. "He sort of made engineering look more artistic, not just sterile and scientific," says Jim Woo, a city engineer who worked on the North Broadway, Spring Street and Franklin Avenue bridges. "He brought out the art of bridge engineering in all of us."

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BUTLER AND MANY OF HIS CONTEMPORARY city builders believed that handsome civic structures elicit handsome behavior from people. Whether that belief has credibility today is difficult to say, at least in the case of the bridges.

Amid Habbal sees evidence that it does. "We used to have graffiti on the North Broadway Bridge every day, and we used to clean it up," he says. "Now if you go to North Broadway--and that neighborhood is the mecca for graffiti--there is none. We bought extra globes for the light standards because we thought the globes we put up wouldn't last one day. But we haven't had to replace one."

The restored Cesar E. Chavez and Olympic Boulevard bridges also show no marring of their important visual attributes.

The Gothic Revival-style 4th Street Bridge, however, has not fared as well. The bridge's four balconies, meant for pedestrians to rest and look out over the city, are cluttered with empty beer cartons and splattered with human excrement.

The unrestored 6th Street Bridge, the last of Butler's creations, is in a similar state. The homeless appear to have set up residence in the nooks of the bridge's hallmark steel arches. Someone has taken the care to spray a single, sparse graffito on 30 of the arches' 40 upright girders. One of the girders, fouled by human feces at its base, bears this message: "Hitler was here. Tabacco (sic) is poison. I am sorry." The walkways past the arches are carpeted with pigeon dung and stink of urine. It all seems a modern-day comment on--a sneer at, really--the lofty civic intentions of Butler and his like.

In response to citizen suggestions, the city is planning to erect spotlights to illuminate the arches and pylons of the North Broadway Bridge so they can be seen from a distance at night, like the bridges over the Seine in Paris. The same likely will be done for the Olympic Boulevard and Cesar E. Chavez bridges.

The city also ought to clean up the 4th Street bridge, however, and make sure that the 6th Street, after it's retrofitted and restored, isn't left to the forces of discouragement and defilement.

In a city that has plenty of ugliness as a result of the greed-driven, foresight-less way it's been developed, the bridges deserve to be lit up, admired and celebrated--not only as beautiful structures, but as symbols of civic faith. What with housing shortages, police scandals and failing schools, Los Angeles is in greater need of them now than it was in Merrill Butler's day.

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James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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