Two workers labor atop the control tower of the Wells Street Bridge, unmindful of the impression they make on passengers rumbling by on the morning el, surprised at their appearance in the morning gloom. Poised at the junction of the past and the future, they tinker with the innards of the historical bridge, the details of it hidden behind an ornamental parapet. They are shoring up the ‘city beautiful’ ideal, perhaps without even knowing.
Many months after the Wells Street Bridge was reconstructed and reopened to much hoopla, the finishing touches are still on-going. Now that the essential work of replacing the bridge leaves has been completed, attention has shifted to modernizing the mechanical controls stored in the bridge houses and restoring their exteriors to their original beauty.
That beauty is just as important as the crossing, at least in theory. Creatures of the city-beautiful movement, the bridges across the Chicago River were always charged with being more than connectors: they were to be ceremonial symbols of the dignity and grandeur of the city. So it has been, from Daniel Burnham’s time on. The bridge towers have been an essential part of that vision, continuing to define the cityscape around the River, even as the buildings have risen higher around them, and, making even the most humdrum transit to the other side more interesting and dramatic than it would otherwise be.