It might not be the ugliest bridge in Connecticut, but could be the least attractive one to win an award for beauty. An overpass across limited access State Route 2 at exit 22, it allows a country road on the outskirts of the rural town of Lebanon, Connecticut to span the highway below. I’d driven across the bridge several times over the years and it seemed mundane, much like any other such structure. This time, however, I noticed a low monument near the southeast corner of the span and pulled over.
Stepping out of my car, I found an angled slab of gray granite with a steely plaque attached. “Most Beautiful Bridge,” read the inscription. “Highway Grade Separation/Designed by/Storch Engineers/Awarded in 1972 by/American Institute of Steel Construction.” Clearly someone cares about the marker because in an area that could easily become overgrown, the grass was well trimmed. Except for a stray strand of poison ivy, the brush was cut back.
The bridge is perfectly functional, but it is as sterile as any other of its kind. Stark and barren, there are low walls of concrete on either side topped with a mesh fence of diamond patterned steel strips that look like a flattened chain link. It’s too wide and out of scale with the road it carries over the highway. It has no ornament, no pedestrian access. Perhaps there’s something special about its engineering or construction that merits accolades. But beautiful?
The American Institute of Steel Construction, a non-profit trade group, has been designating prize winning bridges since 1928. During this long history, awards have been given to graceful and even startlingly beautiful spans including Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge (1958) with it’s arching deck and soaring two towers, and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston (2002) whose gathered steel cables rise like harps or sails over the roadway. The current criteria for Institute bridge prizes are innovation, aesthetics, design, and engineering solutions. Perhaps the Lebanon bridge would have been better off with an award for something other than aesthetics.
With a deep and rich past, Lebanon is no stranger to historical plaques. But the bridge marker was the strangest I’ve found in a town where monuments and signs commemorate a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the only colonial governor to support the Revolution, visits by George Washington, and an encampment by Rochambeau’s French troops.
Institute archives quote a juror from back in 1972 who was apparently smitten by the Lebanon bridge’s beauty. “Its strong attractive lines seem to demand the viewer’s respect,” he said. One has to wonder if he was thinking of another contestant. Nevertheless, as much as I hate clichés, I’ll be among the first to admit that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s just that sometimes there isn’t a lot to behold.