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120 years later, the four bridges of Rockefeller Park continue to welcome and amaze

Their history connects us with a different Cleveland
Posted: 1:59 PM, Jun 07, 2022
Updated: 2022-06-07 18:26:09-04

CLEVELAND — You’ve likely driven or walked beneath them. The Rockefeller Park bridges — grand in size and distinctive in design — are often seen and rarely talked about, yet the love some Clevelanders have for them has stood constant, just like the bridges themselves. If you’ve never paused to appreciate them, you’re missing out on one of Cleveland's hidden gemsin plain sight.

The four bridges that cross over Martin Luther King Drive, formerly Liberty Avenue, at St. Clair Avenue, Wade Park Avenue, Superior Avenue, and furthest North at Lake Shore and the Michigan Southern Railway track, aren’t just functional, their purposeful placement is meant to improve the experience of the park.

Pedestrian view of the St. Clair Avenue Bridge over Martin Luther King Drive.

Few take more pride and have as much admiration for these bridges than Lauren Pacini—an architectural photographer and author who for the last decade has documented the Cultural Gardens and these hard-to-miss stone bridges that greet pedestrians and drivers as they navigate the winding route along Martin Luther King Drive between I-90 and University Circle.

“I just think that the bridges play such an important role in Cleveland. You have to realize that where we are, 15,000 years ago, as the Ice Age receded, Doan Brook was left and has cut this valley for us,” said Pacini as he pointed to the Superior Avenue Bridges from the Irish Cultural Gardens.

Lauren Pacini, architectural photographer and author.

Without Doan Brook, a seven-mile stream feeding from Shaker Lakes that crosses Euclid Avenue and runs through Wade Park before emptying into Lake Erie, he says there would be no Cultural Gardens and no need for the now admired bridges that serve as an intact artifact from the city’s past.

Doan Brook

“They're the legacy pieces, not only of Rockefeller Park, but I think they're one of the finest examples of certainly a park architecture that we have in the city of Cleveland,” said James McKnight, senior landscape architect for the City of Cleveland.

To know the bridges, to love the bridges, and to appreciate the bridges, is to know the history of Cleveland's humble beginnings, its early commitment to the creation of public green spaces, and the prominent architect behind these stone structures: Charles Schweinfurth.

Born in Auburn, New York, Schweinfurth, with his brother, Julius, came to Cleveland in the late 1880s to design a grand mansion, now demolished, on Euclid Avenue’s Millionaires’ Row for Alice and Sylvester Everett. With the city booming, he made his mark as an architect and changed the landscape of Cleveland for the better. In addition to the four bridges, he designed 15 homes on Millionaires’ Row, the interior of the Old Stone Church, Trinity Cathedral and inside the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, among many other recognizable structures.

“He was here at a time when an architect could really make a difference,” said Donald Petit, secretary of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission. “He could have probably written his own ticket and gone anywhere like his brother did, but there must have been something in the city that he loved. And he saw a way to build a legacy here.”

And so he stayed during a period known as the “City Beautiful Movement,” an organized urban planning movement in industrial cities like Cleveland and Chicago that claimed that design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement.

John D. Rockefeller recognized the value of public green spaces for Cleveland residents. In 1896, he donated $300,000 and 276 acres of land between Wade Park and Gordon Park to the city under one condition: that the land be used for public space.

As the city grew east, the old bridges over MLK were incapable of meeting traffic demands, so Schweinfurth was appointed to recreate the bridges in a way that complemented the existing landscape of Rockefeller Park.

“Some of those arches just seem to defy gravity. And I think there's craftsmanship here that's reflected in these bridges,” said Petit.One hundred twenty years later, and they still impress people whenever they drive through them.” 

With each project completed, Petit says Schweinfurth further solidified his reputation as one of the most prolific architects of the late 19th to early 20th centuries while creating architectural gems that Clevelanders for generations have come to know and love.

“These four bridges represented that growth of the city and the need for people to get in and out of the city—Downtown being about five miles from here,” Pacini said.

Pacini's road to architectural photography didn’t start until he came home from Vietnam and noticed how the city’s landscape was changing before his eyes. It didn’t look the same as he left it.

I was convinced that the Cleveland that I had grown up in was not going to be around much longer, and I wanted to photograph it,” he said, referring to a time when Cleveland was an industrial powerhouse and one of the largest cities in America.

Pedestrian view of the St. Clair Avenue Bridge over Martin Luther King Drive.

With his camera in hand and curiosity as his guide, Pacini made frequent trips down to the Cultural Gardens—a place he says “tells Cleveland’s story.” It’s a story that wouldn’t be complete without the Rockefeller Park Bridges— architectural anchors that keep Cleveland’s past alive.

No matter how many times he photographs them, a number too high to count, Pacini’s fascination with the bridges is the same as the first day he saw them.

Of the four bridges, the Wade Park bridge, the first one to greet visitors coming from University Circle, is the one he calls the crown jewel of the park and is the one that takes up the most space in his SD card—and his heart.

“This, without a doubt, is my favorite. And every time I come down here, I take time at least to drive by. Now, there's an awful lot of traffic. Now with St. Clair such a mess. But it doesn't detract (from the beauty),” said Pacini while at the top of the bridge overlooking MLK.

Wade Park Bridge

The Wade Park Bridge is unlike any of the other bridges because it’s uniquely designed with a staircase that almost looks to hug the bridge, and it’s this detail and craftsmanship that raises the bridge to a different level of architecture.

This [the staircase] is integral to the architecture of the bridge. And there's just a sensuous nature to it that I just think is amazing,” Pacini said.

No matter which direction you enter the Cultural Gardens, the bridges are sort of a red carpet, inviting visitors to somewhat of a whimsical experience that flirts with urban design, history and architecture.

“They're special. They speak to the past. They tell us where Cleveland's been. They speak to our history. And they inspire me. I think they inspire a lot of people. Whether you're going to a service at Trinity Cathedral or whether you're a student at Cleveland State University, or driving down Martin Luther King Boulevard on a Saturday afternoon. These buildings still speak to us. And I think that's important,” Petit said of Schweinfuirth's legacy.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but anyone who comes in contact with Schweinfurth’s fab four will likely come to the same conclusion about the bridges:

Clevelanders, if you haven't been here, you don't realize what you've missed until you come down,” Pacini said. “Take a good, close look, and I think you'll find it is one of Cleveland's sadly best-kept secrets.”

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