The 115-year-old pedestrian bridge in Milwaukee’s Lake Park has seen a lot of days, and all of them have been better.
Chain link fences block both ends. Sections of its concrete are cracked or missing, colorful graffiti scrawled on a pillar below.
But a long-standing effort to revive the historic bridge and reopen the winding road beneath it is now coming to fruition.
One end of the bridge sits just north of Lake Park Bistro and the park’s lawn bowling greens. The other is along a steep bluff offering spectacular views of Lake Michigan. The bridge has been closed since 2016 over concerns about deterioration of the structure as well as soil erosion along its supports.
Constructed in 1905, the bridge provided passage across scenic Ravine Road, a narrow, twisting path connecting the lakefront to the East Side that has been barricaded since 2014. Fallen trees, large branches and piles of decaying leaves now obstruct the road.
Restoring the bridge’s faded glory has “absolutely been my number one priority,” says Milwaukee County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, whose district includes Lake Park. “It has been a big eyesore. It’s time to move forward. This is a crown jewel of the park.”
Public debate initially centered on whether the bridge should be renovated, fully rebuilt or even demolished. Now, plans to restore it are moving forward, spearheaded by preservation group Lake Park Friends in conjunction with Milwaukee County. A final design should be settled on by December, and work is scheduled to begin next summer.
The county has adopted a budget of $2.5 million to rehabilitate the bridge, 80% of which is from a federal program; the county will foot the rest of the bill. The work could take two years to complete.
“The goal is to preserve as much of the original bridge and design as possible,” Lake Park Friends board president Jan Uebelherr says.
Lake Park Friends raised over $900,000 in pledges from private donors to supplement public funds for the renovation, after cash-strapped Milwaukee County committed its $500,000 for the project. With federal funds now secure, the group convinced some donors who made pledges for the renovation to instead support ongoing maintenance once renovation work is complete; initial estimates projected that $360,000 would be needed over 50 years. Of the original $900,000 pledged, $300,000 has been secured for a maintenance fund, while the rest has been withdrawn or earmarked for other projects in the park.
With the restoration plan nailed down, debate – often intense – has shifted to whether Ravine Road, which runs from Lincoln Memorial Drive to Lake Park Road, should be reopened to vehicle traffic.
“Our board was not unified on this in the beginning. Finally, we voted unanimously to open the road and keep the original pattern while also being mindful of some neighbors’ concerns about traffic,” Uebelherr explains. “We favor the idea of having the road shut down at certain times to address those concerns.”
Lake Park Friends’ resolution opposes any permanent closure of Ravine Road, changes to its winding pattern or conversion to a pedestrian and bicycle trail. Closure would deny “pleasure driving” through Lake Park as originally intended by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the resolution states.
At this time, no funding is earmarked for Ravine Road work, which could become an issue depending on its condition, says Colleen Reilly, past president of Lake Park Friends.
“This road delighted me as a child whenever my parents would drive up it,” writes a signer of an online petition signed by more than 3,600 people by early August. “It felt magical to me.”