The beloved pedestrian bridge over Ravine Road in Milwaukee’s Lake Park is open for the first time in six years, much to the delight of East Side residents and regular park visitors. With filled champagne glasses in hand and strolling musicians performing, a crowd of about 100 people braved chilly temperatures and steady rain for a ceremonial walk across the 117-year-old structure, which closed in 2016 because of cracks in the surface and soil erosion around its supports.
Lake Park Friends worked with Milwaukee County and historic preservation groups to ensure the restoration of the bridge. Once entirely finished, the project is projected to have a price tag of about $4.4 million, including $2 million covered through federal funds.
The original arched concrete footbridge was one of the key elements – along with the grand staircase and pavilion – envisioned by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted when he designed Lake Park in the late 1800s.
Many supporters of the project carried cardboard cutouts featuring an image of Olmsted’s face as they made their way northward across the bridge.
“We are extremely grateful to our donors, Milwaukee County and Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman for working to ensure the restoration of this historic landmark,” said Anne Hamilton, president of nonprofit Lake Park Friends, which championed the restoration of the bridge and has committed $300,000 toward its maintenance over the next 50 years.
Donations from citizens were key to the success of the project, Hamilton told the crowd.
“Their donations at critical times, made it clear to the community that the will to save the bridge was very strong,” she said.
Hamilton also praised community leaders and volunteers who spent countless hours attending meetings, fund raising and working with Milwaukee County officials and contractors on myriad issues.
“It took a lot more than money to make this happen,” Hamilton said.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said the bridge is a key component to Lake Park, which he described as one of the “crown jewels” of the Milwaukee County Parks System.
“This is a long time in the making and I’m glad we found a way to preserve an important cultural landmark in our own community and that we can reopen this part of Lake Park for our current and future generations to use and enjoy,” Crowley said.
Wasserman singled out Lake Park Friends for its dedication to the project “from the very beginning.” He said the Ravine Road pedestrian bridge has been a hot-button issue since he was first elected to office in 2016. Public debate initially centered on whether the bridge should be renovated, fully rebuilt or even demolished.
Wasserman specifically pointed out Colleen Reilly, former Lake Park Friends president and an engineer by trade, for pushing to restore the bridge.
“To have the background that she has was instrumental to making this thing happen,” he said. “It was her voice always in my ear saying we can do better, don’t give up.”
Wasserman said the weather couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm surrounding the reopening of the bridge.
“When I heard it was going to rain today and that it was cloudy and snow could be coming, who cares because we have the bridge done,” he shouted to the crowd. He also credited Lake Park Friends for its dedication to the project.
“Lake Park Friends stood at the plate and hit a grand slam home run,” he said.
Zenith Tech, a Waukesha construction firm, is the lead contractor on the restoration project.
The inclement weather at first forced the group to gather inside Lake Park Bistro, located in the park’s historic pavilion atop the grand staircase. People later made their way to the bridge for a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony before trekking across the beautifully renovated structure.
Lake Park, on Milwaukee’s East Side, is the only Milwaukee County Park listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The footbridge spans the park’s largest ravine and connects its north and south sections. It historically has served thousands of walkers, runners and bicyclists annually and is a special destination for birders, particularly during the spring and fall migrations.
The bridge, which opened in 1905, was designed by renowned Wisconsin architect Alfred C. Clas, whose firm created numerous landmarks, including Milwaukee’s Central Library, the State Historical Society headquarters building in Madison and the Frederick Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee.
With the bridge restoration nearing completion, the focus is certain to shift to whether Ravine Road, which runs from Lincoln Memorial Drive to Lake Park Road, should be reopened to vehicle traffic. The Lake Park Friends board previously voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to open the road and keep the original pattern while also being mindful of some neighbors’ concerns about traffic.
Lake Park Friends’ resolution also opposes any permanent closure of Ravine Road, changes to its winding pattern or conversion to a pedestrian and bicycle trail.
At this time, no funding is earmarked for Ravine Road work.