MoCo Bridge to a Speculative Past?

Washington Grove "Humpback Bridge"

At yesterday’s Montgomery County Planning Board hearing to designate the Kensington Park Cabin, the Planning Board — before voting unanimously to recommend designating the cabin — raised some interesting questions about a stone arch bridge near the park. The Kensington residents advocating for the cabin’s designation think the bridge was built at the same time as the cabin (early 1930s). Owned and maintained by the Town of Kensington, the bridge carries Kensington Parkway over a tributary to Rock Creek Park. The discussion reminded me of another Montgomery County bridge. In 2005 the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission recommended designating a bridge — Washington Grove’s “Humpback Bridge” — built in 1988 as historic. The bridge carries East Deer Park Drive over the CSX Railroad tracks.

There are no clear guidelines for evaluating the significance and integrity of historic bridges in Montgomery County. There are, however, many examples of bridges listed in the National Register of Historic Places and documented by the Historic American Engineering Record.

Since the late 1980s, several states have commissioned thematic studies and multiple property nominations of historic highway bridges. Bridges are ubiquitous and they have posed challenges to highway engineers and planners since day one of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). They set standards for evaluating bridges many state DOTs commissioned studies of their bridges. These studies include bright-line measures for evaluating the significance of particular bridge types (e.g., stone arch, concrete arch, metal truss, and metal girder/stringer bridges) and assessing integrity using the NRHP’s seven aspects of integrity (location, design, materials, setting, workmanship, feeling, and association).

Washington Grove "Humpback Bridge" Location. Adapted from Bing Maps.

The Washington Grove railroad crossing has been in place since the 1880s. The first bridge at the crossing was a wood truss structure. This structure was completely replaced in 1945 by a wood deck girder/stringer bridge. Although the nominator provided a narrative description of approach angles, etc. of the 1945-1988 bridge, we did not see engineering or photos that illustrate¬† the second bridge at the crossing. A bridge is a complex, compound structure and its various members — its materials and configuration — are key to distinguishing one bridge from another.

All the HPC had back in 2005 was the word of the nominator that the bridge built in 1988 was a faithful reconstruction of the 1945 bridge. The existing bridge, regardless of how we parse its elements, is nonetheless is a reconstructed structure. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Reconstruction provide clear guidelines for such projects and the Washington Grove bridge as a structure conforms little to those guidelines. There is a big difference between wood bridges and metal bridges and it is evident from the testimony that we heard last night and the reports that the 1880s historic bridge was the landmark in this community.

What does the existing bridge, leaving aside its significant setting and landscape components, convey? The bridge cannot be definitively associated with any one period of significance; it is essentially a speculative reconstruction using substitute materials that do not convey the appearance of either the 1880s bridge or the 1945 bridge. The 1988 bridge is a composite montage of perceived modern materials and design, historicity, and minor elements salvaged from an arguably unremarkable replacement bridge. The 1880s wood railings illustrated in the 1910 photo the HPC reviewed in 2005 bear no resemblance to the railings in the existing bridge.

To say that this bridge is reminiscent of a long gone rustic era in Montgomery County is a fallacy. This was and is a cheap and expedient bridge built by the B&O Railroad to facilitate a key crossing. Period. It defies conventional historical practice to equate something that’s wood and simple with rusticity. That’s an overly romantic view of the past and of the role of industrial structures in their social and economic contexts.

The nominator and residents testified that the bridge is the keystone in Washington Grove’s circulation network and was (and is) a revered landmark used to direct visitors to the area. I just don’t see that point beyond the anecdotal testimony provided in the 2005 hearing. Where are the historical photos? Where are the historical narratives? I agree 100 percent that the cultural landscape embodied in the B&O crossing warrants designation, but not the bridge structure itself.

Washington Grove Humpback Bridge. Map submitted to the Montgomery County Planning Board in the 2005 Draft Amendment to the Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

Montgomery County could have designated the crossing and included its circulation network (road pattern, railroad), right-of-way widths, and even the historical footprint of the bridge and its approaches and abutments as the key defining features without also designating the bridge. The bridge’s Locational Atlas status does not appear to have affected county plans for rehabilitation of the CSX crossing and the bridge was closed briefly for repairs, reopening in 2009. County historic preservation staff presented the Planning Board with additional information regarding the bridge’s integrity, including a statement about the bridge’s eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Despite this additional information, it appears that the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties form completed as part of the Montgomery County designation process has not been entered into the Maryland Historical Trust database and the M-NCPPC online GIS application indicates that the bridge remains a Locational Atlas property and not a Master Plan for Historic Preservation property. It is unclear whether the Maryland Historical Trust has evaluated the bridge and concurred with Montgomery County historic preservation staff’s recommendations.

Solid research and sound decision-making are essential elements in a public historic preservation program that involves the regulation of public as well as private property. After the Kensington Cabin hearing, the Planning Board took testimony on the block of proposed historic designations in the Upper Patuxent Planning Area. Four witnesses appeared, including two property owners who oppose designation. Montgomery County historic preservation staff are presenting the Planning Board with recommendations for designation that go beyond the Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendations, potentially creating a historic district and designating additional properties as historic. The Planning Board has a work session on the Upper Patuxent designations scheduled for November 4.