Hidden Houston: Historic Bridges

Waterways have had an influence on Houston's growth from the very beginning. They have not only been used for transportation and commerce, but each has had to be crossed. In the early 20th century old wooden bridges had to be replaced with stronger more permanent structures. Our occasional series Hidden Houston takes us to five of those bridges that are now on the National Historic Register. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports.

The man behind the effort is Kirk Farris of Art and Environmental Architecture, Inc.

"As an artist I am intrinsically unqualified to do this work, but I felt like I was one of the few people willing to do this work, so I went ahead and did it because I knew how."

Farris had the McKee Street bridge put on the register and with the help of the Texas Historical Commission he got three bridges over Buffalo Bayou and two over Brays Bayou added on too. We met on a bike path under the Jensen Drive Bridge, which when it was built was the Hill Street Bridge.

"This is a bridge of the art deco period, 1937 and 38. It's a rivet construction method and there are four support beams gently making an arch. And, the railing is uniquely art deco in its nature, so it's a very attractive bridge and it gives it enough altitude over the waterway to remain a navigable waterway."

City bridge engineer J. G. McKenzie designed and built this bridge and two others on the register, The Almeda Road Bridge and the Telephone Road Bridge, both over Brays Bayou. Both are among the last continuous span concrete girder bridges designed with City Beautiful principals. A late 19th and early 20th century national program to make urban areas more attractive.

"The railings in particular on these bridges that are City Beautiful, generally reflect this urn, the urns are encapsulated in the railing making it very esthetically attractive. There are arches under each structure, keeping with the theme of the arched bridge, even though they're not true arches, but yet they have this esthetic that they tried to build into these structures."

You can also that concrete arch and the urn style balustrade on the Sabine Street Bridge, built a few years earlier and one of the most photographed bridges in the city.

The 5th bridge is the San Jacinto Street Bridge, built in 1914.

"This bridge is very elegant. It's unique in the fact that it's skewed in terms of its shape. Do you see that it's got a certain curvature to it? It's called an open spandrel arch bridge. In the construction of this bridge they had to leave the bayou open for navigation traffic while they were doing it. It must have presented some real engineering challenges because this is a true arch bridge and an arch doesn't have strength unless it's in compression, and so that whole process must have been a nightmare."

Kirk Farris would like to get more people interested in preserving not just bridges, but the buildings along Buffalo Bayou.

"So that people can know what Buffalo Bayou really once was to the city, and still find evidence of the industrial waterway in the downtown area."

One of the still visible signs is a boarded up door with iron wrung steps down to the bayou on the Commerce Street side. The first woman pilot and licensed skipper on the bayou, Captain G. C. Griffin, ran her Sand and Shell company there and used to climb down those steps to her boat in the 1920s.

You can see pictures the bridges at kuhf.org.

Bio photo of Rod Rice

Rod Rice

Local Anchor, Morning Edition

Rod Rice became fascinated with radio at an early age, while sitting on his Grandfather’s lap listening to his "programs" on the big Emerson Radio...