Sometimes it's easy to experience an old or historic place and take for granted the many hours, efforts, and people it required over the years to preserve its character. It's easy to think that everyone holds the same preservation values, and that the hard work of keeping things around just kind of happens. Somehow.
But for anyone who's been on the advocating side of things knows, preservation -- in most cases, at least -- doesn't just happen. The story of St. Augustine, Florida's 1927 Bridge of Lions is a great example of this.
St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European city in the continental United States (San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest in the entire U.S., whereas Acoma Sky City in New Mexico is the oldest non-European city in the U.S.), has such great, aged-in-place architectural history that there's almost an assumption it's all already been saved.
But when the Bridge of Lions, which connects historic downtown St. Augustine with neighboring Anastasia Island, was threatened with demolition and replacement with a wider span, preservationists rose up to save it. I spoke with Theresa Segal, president of Save Our Bridge (the organization formed to, you guessed it, save the bridge), about her involvement with their efforts, which eventually led to a full restoration.
What inspired you to get involved with the Bridge of Lions?
In 1998, the Coast Guard entered the debate on whether to rehab or replace of the Bridge of Lions, citing that the bridge was an impingement to navigation. Before they weighed in, the decision-making process had been going in the direction of preservation. It wasn't until the Coast Guard got involved that I worried that losing the bridge could actually happen. I was born in St. Augustine, and couldn't bear to watch the dismantling of one of its signature historic structures.
Looking back, what were some of the most important actions you and your fellow advocates took to save the bridge?
- Nominating the Bridge of Lions for the 11 Most Endangered list, of course! That designation was key.
- We created and continually updated our website, which was a great tool to disseminate information and keep everyone informed.
- We submitted numerous reports as comments to the draft Environmental Impact Statement.
- In our comments we submitted a petition to save the bridge with almost 6,000 signatures.
- We were tenacious and never let any argument to tear down the bridge go unanswered.
It's not often that preservation wins over state and federal transportation interests. What were some of the arguments that you used when fighting to save the bridge, seeing as yours was a "historic/aesthetic" argument over a numbers/capacity argument?
Early on in the process, a transportation study was conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation designating that the only possible configuration for that bridge location was a two-lane draw span. So it seemed logical to restore the historic structure.
However, the Coast Guard began to push for a wider span -- 125' to replace the existing 76' -- citing the bridge as an impingement to navigation. Save Our Bridge was successful in debunking this argument with the expertise of one of our local advocates, T.J. Tremmel. In the end, the Coast Guard had to issue a correction to the figures they had put forth to support the need for a wider span.
Are you working on any other preservation projects currently? If so, what lessons from the Bridge's success are you referencing now?
Nothing even near the scale of the efforts to save the Bridge of Lions. I'm a member of Citizens for the Preservation of St. Augustine. We raise money to grant to small preservation needs throughout St. Augustine. One cause that I'm currently working on is the preservation of a run-down community center in historic Lincolnville, the neighborhood I live in.
An important lesson I learned from Save Our Bridge's efforts is that it's important to know what you're talking about. I'm selective about the issues I take on, but when I do I learn as much as possible, seek expert advise and never assume or underestimate. Credibility is key!