By James Lomuscio
Westport’s North Avenue bridge spanning the Merritt Parkway today looked bareboned, much of its concrete deck jack hammered out, exposing steel ribs hidden for more nearly 80 years.
The North Avenue Bridge over the Merritt Parkway as it looked today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
As the wind of rushing vehicles moved rhythmically below, Shalal Hussein, project engineer for the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT), said it was one of four Merritt Parkway bridges under reconstruction. The others are the ones at Chestnut Hill Road and Perry Avenue, both in Norwalk, and Main Street in Stratford.
Like all of the Merritt’s 69 original bridges, each with a unique architectural design representing 1930s styles, the North Avenue bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s a very gorgeous bridge,” Hussein said as he walked sections of the 1939 art deco structure, for years set apart by its black stone and parapets with fiddle-fern and flower motifs.
The painstaking reconstruction project began June 22, and completion is expected around Aug. 17, he said. Cost is $2.8 million, according to CDOT.
The North Avenue Bridge pictured shortly after the Merritt Parkway section from Norwalk to Trumbull was opened in 1939. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) CDOT photo
The work was scheduled to coincide with the Westport schools vacation as North Avenue is the main link between Coleytown Elementary and Coleytown Middle School with Staples High School and Bedford Middle School.
Initially, it was thought that only minor repairs, filling in hollows along the walls and deck would be needed; however, engineers found more degradation than expected on the bridge that carries an estimated 1,200 vehicles daily.
Hussein said that while the aggregate concrete, fortified with dark, inch-and-a-half triangular stone, had been well mixed for the long haul years ago, it became compromised by New England’s alternating temperatures and winter road salt evidenced by salt stalactites.
“In Rome they have a consistent climate,” he said in response to the concrete Pantheon being uncompromised after nearly 2,000 years.
Special forms for concrete have been created to exactly replicate the distinctive bridge stonework. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
In addition to climate and salt stress factors, there were more hollow areas than expected, he said. It was not a substantial problem on the parapet walls, which had been poured and molded elsewhere and trucked in during the late 1930s. The problem lay on the deck span.
“To assure we have complete longevity of the bridge, we try to sound assess all of the concrete,” said Hussein, a University of New Haven graduate who has been with CDOT for six years. “We try to assess all of the hollows. For the vertical walls, we use a chisel and a hammer, and for the decking, we use a chain.
“We run a chain over it, and if there are any hollows, it will cause a change in the pitch,” Hussein added. “It was more complicated than we thought. We thought we were only going to be filling in a small area.”
He pointed out where temporary supports would be in place for more than two weeks. During that time, the bridge clearance for parkway motorists would be lowered about a foot-and-a-half to about 10 feet.
Project engineers Shalal Hussein (l) and Prashant Chandra at the site today. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Most importantly, Hussein and project engineer Prashant Chandra said the new bridge would strive to replicate the detail of the historic bridge.
“All of the details and all of the construction will follow the Merritt Parkway Conservancy guidelines,” Hussein said.
He added that Mark McMillan, the DOT’s architectural historian specializing in National Register properties, recently visited the site. Already, plywood concrete pouring forms have been fashioned to exactly replicate the facade’s step-down motif.
Beyond the aesthetics, Hussein said even the new aggregate will be matched to core samples taken from the sides and the deck. When completed, he said motorists can expect to see the same bridge, only newer and more structurally sound.
About the Aug. 17 completion deadline?
“We’re currently working days and night, crews in 12-hour shifts,” he said. “We’re definitely going to do our best.”
See more photos here