Committee members seek to brighten up their beloved span

They began meeting more than 15 years ago Ñ in 1988 or 1989, committee members guess Ñ in the lobby of the U.S. Bank in St. Johns.

And more than 15 years later Ñ through ups and downs, through times of high enthusiasm and waning hopes Ñ a handful of them still meet, the second Tuesday of each month, chasing their goal.

They want to shine a light on Ñ actually shine a million dollars' worth of nighttime lighting on Ñ what they consider Portland's most graceful but most forgotten span: the St. Johns Bridge.

'It's Portland's most beautiful bridge, that virtually disappears at night,' said John Burton, a graphic designer who now is chairman of the St. Johns Bridge Lighting committee. Burton is a relative newcomer to the cause. He's only been on the committee nine years.

Marian Blackford, meanwhile, has been a bridge committee member from the beginning. 'When I was a size 6, and now I'm a size 18,' she joked.

The idea for adding architectural nighttime lighting to Portland's only suspension bridge came up in 1987, about the same time advocates began lobbying to add similar lighting to some of Portland's downtown bridges.

But while the downtown bridge advocates, who became the Willamette Light Brigade, succeeded in adding illumination to the Morrison and Hawthorne bridges in the late 1980s, the St. Johns advocates' efforts always have stood apart.

And they've had their challenges, challenges that seem to reflect the St. Johns Bridge's secondary status in Portland's consciousness.

'It's never included' in discussions about Portland bridges, Burton said. 'It's like the St. Johns is the weird cousin, the ugly sister.'

That likely is partly due to its location Ñ far north of downtown, near an industrial area Ñ and what it does: connect a sparsely populated, tree-lined hillside with the historically blue-collar neighborhood of St. Johns, Burton said.

Significant history

But the bridge, which was the largest suspension span west of Detroit when it was dedicated in 1931, deserves to be more than just an afterthought, committee members said. (The Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco opened in 1937.)

Burton said the span's builder, the then-famous engineer David Steinman of New York, considered it his 'tour de force.'

Blackford, who often gazes at the bridge from her back deck on the west side of the Willamette, called it wondrous.

'It's almost like it's against the grain of gravity, so to speak,' she said. 'It has a grace, a spiritual feeling.'

And now, after 15 years of fits and starts, things may be gaining momentum.

First, the bridge's $38 million repainting and renovation, paid for by its owner, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and scheduled to be completed this summer or fall, is bringing it some new luster and new attention, Burton says.

And evidence of people's interest in the bridge continues to mount. The St. Johns bridge committee recently printed 400 posters of a Ray Atkenson photo of the bridge to sell as a fund-raiser. The $25 posters sold out in one afternoon. 'They were sold over the phone, unseen,' Burton said, adding that he thinks the sale shows 'there is a communitywide, even a worldwide, affection for that bridge.'

Committee members have been hampered over the years in understanding even where to get approval for a lighting plan, to design the plan and raise the money to pay for it. Their 1980s estimate on total cost was $200,000 to $300,000. The most recent estimate, based on a $25,000 lighting design Ñ by Interface Engineering and artist Tad Savinar Ñ completed in 2001 and paid for by a Metro grant, was about $1.2 million. That would pay for more than 500 light fixtures that would shine on all parts of the bridge structure, from the suspension cables to the 408-foot tall spires.

Rough campaign

Of the more than 15 years of committee struggle, Burton said, 'Some things are harder than you think.'

'We were very uneducated as a committee,' Blackford said. 'We didn't know the hoops to jump through. And then when we jumped through the hoops we would get slapped in the face.'

The most recent setback came last fall, when the committee's attempt to get the $1.2 million through a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation was rejected because the committee didn't have a local government entity as co-sponsor and hadn't raised the local matching money the grant required.

'I shed a lot of tears a couple of months ago,' Blackford said.

But the sale of the posters has raised committee members' spirits. And they are now looking at winning the same federal grant in its next round, in the summer of 2006.

To do that, they need to raise 10 percent of the cost Ñ what they now estimate at about $115,000 Ñ which 'is a lot of money É by St. Johns and (nearby neighborhood) Linnton standards,' Burton says.

Committee members hope to solicit local officials of some of the large corporations Ñ Chevron, Arco, Toyota Ñ that have facilities nearby. They 'all have conference rooms that have views of the bridge,' Burton said.

He added: 'We need what I call champions for the cause' among local legislators or city leaders. 'Someone who has a passion for it like all of us.'

Hopefully such a champion will arrive soon, Blackford said. And eventually, the lights will shine on the St. Johns Bridge.

'As far as giving up, I'm not going to give up,' she said. 'I've made up my mind that this is going to happen.'

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