Architecture as Art

Editor's Note: This story was part of a News 11 Special Report: From Tragedy to Triumph: the Veteran's Glass City Skyway.

Thoughout history, architecture and art have gone hand in hand, but rarely as dramatically as it has here.  The frustratingly long wait for the Veterans' Glass City Skyway to become a reality had one major benefit.  Newer technologies meant that our bridge could become more than just a way to get cars across the river.  Using a cable-stayed design is not only cost effective, long lasting and low maintenance.

But it's also absolutely stunning.  We're seeing more of these bridges around the country, too. This one in Tampa, the Sunshine Skyway even won the Presidential Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Our skyway is something else.  It's single pylon, which carries all the weight of the cables that support the roadway, soars 400 feet above the river.  And the cable design itself is revolutionary.  It's called a cradle system, and it allows the cables to be farther apart and the span to be longer.

Believe it or not, you can't even see the cables themselves.  What you do see are stainless steel sheaths that carry as many as 156 of these plastic-wrapped cables inside.  The result is a bridge as likely to catch the poet's eye as stir the engineer's soul.

If you don't believe it, look no further than Gallery 18 at the Toledo Museum of Art, which featured an exhibit called "From Start to Finish, Photographs of Toledo's I-280 Bridge Project."  Sensing that both history and art would be made, the museum commissioned photographer Lynn Whitney to capture it all.

"Those are the segments before they're actually put together and these are called diapers, to keep the debris from falling on people and cars," said Whitney, referring to a photo.  Her black and white images document one of the great truths surrounding the bridge. That as enormous, striking and virtually eternal as it may seem, it's still the work of human hands.

From idea, to design, to construction, an army of people made it happen as hour became day became month became year until every piece came together into what we see today.  History.

But there was a time no one knew if it would ever happen. The problem of getting around a city with a river through the middle of it has been a problem ever since there was a Toledo.  One made even worse by the need to make way for regular visits by the huge Great Lakes freighters.

Getting from one side of town to the other is one thing.  Getting more than 60,000 cars a day just passing through on I-280 across the Maumee is quite another.  The 50-year-old Craig Memorial Bridge was one of the last drawbridges anywhere on the U.S. Interstate highway system.  Even so, lobbying for a new bridge took decades before the money, technology and political will came together with a formal groundbreaking ceremony in June of 2002.

Getting your mind around a project like this one can be truly mind-boggling! The entire project -- new freeway, approaches, ramps and the bridge itself -- is nearly four miles long.  The approaches alone needed 181 reinforced concrete piers more than eight feet in diameter.  To make sure they stay put, foundation shafts were bored into the ground, some of them 100 feet deep.

In many ways, the heart of the construction project was a mile away from the site.  It was here at the casting yard on Front Street that the concrete segments that make up the roadway were created.  Fifteen casting machines, averaged about one 40 to 100 ton segment per day.  "They estimate that'll probably be about 18 months of casting, if everything goes perfect," said Mike Gramza, of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Three-thousand, fifty-seven individual pieces perfectly matched to within a few 1000ths of a foot.  That's about the thickness of a sheet of paper!  They're completely hollow, as we've seen and interlocking in such a way that when put together with a giant crane suspended above, they actually supported themselves during construction.

"It has the ability to carry its own weight even before the cables are put in.  Even though it looks like it's just hanging there," said Gramza.  "It's called cantilevered construction, which means you build it out as you go essentially."

The signature piece of it all, of course is the incredible center pylon.  It alone is an engineering marvel.  How do you build something just 40-feet shorter than the city's tallest skyscraper in the middle of a fast flowing river?

A 100-foot diameter steel ring was built first to hold back the water.  That was filled with sand to create a manmade island.  Then 17 shafts were bored 15 feet into the bedrock below the river floor.

By fall of 2005, it had taken shape and ready for another of those milestone moments, the traditonal "topping off" ceremony. Workers raised the final section, American flag on top into the October sky.

The "sky" in Skyway now complete.  But for every major component of the bridge that steadily came together over more than five years, there were countless smaller details.  Thousands of workers poured heart and soul into projects other than the concrete segments, the center pylon, or the dramatic cable stays.  Millions of tons of dirt were moved in excavating.  Painters, landscapers, electricians, virtuallly every trade imaginable expressed to the highest art form.

As we stand back and look at the extraordinary finished product today, that is the true art of the thing.  Art galleries, architectural drawings, computer generated images helped us imagine what it would be.  Thousands of skilled men and women made it what it is.

Which brings us to the most difficult part of the story of the Veterans' Glass City Skyway.  When it was named, it was intended to honor the men and women who served our country.  Before it was finished, though, it also became a memorial to others who reminded us how something so ambitious can be more costly than we'd ever dreamed.