The Drake Bridge Dilemma

September 3, 2014  | By Shoal Creek Conservancy

This blog post was written by Ted Lee Eubanks. To learn more about the author, please visit this site.

Drake Bridge as seen from the mouth of Shoal Creek by Ted Lee Eubanks
Drake Bridge as seen from the mouth of Shoal Creek by Ted Lee Eubanks

There are only a handful of river crossings in Austin between the major freeways that hem in the city on the east and west. Between Interstate 35 and MoPac (Highway 1), there are only three bridges – Congress, First, and Lamar. The Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge runs parallel to the Lamar bridge, and is limited to foot traffic.

All of these bridges have official names. The official name for the Congress Street Bridge is the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. There isn’t an alternative for the Lamar Boulevard Bridge. The South First Bridge, however, has an official name that has been lost in time. The bridge that extends South First over Lady Bird Lake is officially the Drake Bridge.

Julian P. Montgomery, a UT School of Engineering graduate, designed the bridge with 4 lanes and 4-foot sidewalks. The city hoped that the bridge would help relieve the traffic load on both Lamar Boulevard and Congress Avenue. Construction began June 22, 1953. Construction problems delayed the completion of the bridge until February 1, 1954. The city held an  opening ceremony February 11. Mayor A. C. McFadden described the bridge as being symbolic of a link between “two segments of the finest people in the United States, those who live in south Austin and those who live in north Austin.”

Drake Bridge, viewed from the east, by Ted Lee Eubanks
Drake Bridge, viewed from the east, by Ted Lee Eubanks

On October 19, 1956, the Austin City Council voted to rename the bridge as The Drake Bridge in honor of William Sherman Drake, Jr. (1909-1967) who had been the Mayor of Austin at the time the bridge was built. Drake’s father, William Sr., founded the Calcasieu Lumber Company and eventually became the last Treasurer of the Republic of Texas and the first Treasurer of the State of Texas.

Of course, there are Shoal Creek connections. The 1930 Mediterranean Revival mansion in Old Enfield, currently the home of Ann Butler (widow of former Austin mayor Roy Butler) was built by William Sherman Drake and his sister, Katherine Drake Hart, one of the founders of the Austin History Center.

On June 29, 1989, The Austin City Council gave approval for the expansion of the Drake Bridge to its current 6 lanes with 10-foot sunken hike/bike paths. According to Eric Anderson, “the cantilevered sidewalks were designed (primarily pro-bono) by Pfluger Bridge architect Girard Kinney; the original design for the 1989 six-lane bridge had pedestrian accommodations not a lot better than (though a bit wider) than the Lamar Blvd. Bridge.”

The Drake Bridge is the first structure you see looking east from the mouth of Shoal Creek. The peninsula (recently renovated) that guards the mouth of the creek runs east/west, and the small park at the end of the peninsula looks directly at this bridge. The Drake Bridge is a part of Shoal Creek’s viewshed, and therefore its aesthetic qualities and condition are important to us who care about the creek.

Mouth of Shoal Creek by Ted Lee Eubanks
Mouth of Shoal Creek by Ted Lee Eubanks

A few weeks ago, I began to take notice of the lighting on the bridges that cross the lake. I have worked with bridge lighting in other cities, and I have at least a working knowledge of the subject. Congress, of course, doesn’t have the type of aesthetic lighting that I am talking about (that, I guess, is another subject). The lighting along the new boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake is a wonderful amenity, so chalk that up as a welcome addition. However, my focus these past few weeks has been the Drake Bridge.

The period lighting installed on the bridge is a lovely adornment and adds a great deal to the charm of the bridge. I should say “could” be a lovely adornment since the current condition of that lighting takes away from, rather than adds to, the charm of the bridge.

I urge you to look at the bridge in the late evening or early morning hours when the lights are on. A significant percentage of the lights are burned out. Many of the plastic globes are broken or missing. There are now at least three colors of white and yellow globes, with no rhyme or reason to how they are matched. I assume that the original globes were white, and subsequent replacements do not match the originals. Many of the light poles have been tagged or have been plastered with decals.

According to Eric Anderson, “here’s another for you, certainly a testament to Mr. Kinney’s design genius, love for this city, and his understated approach: walk the Drake Bridge west sidewalk (either direction) and now and then and again glance upstream at the Union Pacific/ Pfluger/ Lamar Blvd bridges and you will notice something odd , and brilliant. The Pfluger Bridge “disappears” revealing the graceful arches of the Lamar Bridge beyond.”

Austin skyline looking east toward Drake Bridge by Ted Lee Eubanks
Austin skyline looking east toward Drake Bridge by Ted Lee Eubanks

I

s there a higher profile bridge in the city? With the construction boom on Shoal Creek, the center of town has shifted west. First Street (becoming Guadalupe) runs directly through the UT campus. City Hall is on the corner of Cesar Chavez and First, at the base of the bridge.

It is often the case that some of the most important investments that a city can make in aesthetics and quality of life are the least costly. We are spending more on the grass on Auditorium Shores than it would cost to light every bridge that crosses Lady Bird Lake. The thousands of people who will soon be enjoying the new Auditorium Shores grounds will be looking directly at the Drake Bridge when they glance out at the lake. 

Is there a reason that this bridge’s lighting is in such an abominable condition? Surely this isn’t another one of those “budget” lapses. If we can spend $30 million on a boardwalk, can’t we afford the few thousand that it takes to keep the most visible bridge in the city properly maintained?

Drake Bridge as viewed at sunrise from the Congress Street bridge by Ted Lee Eubanks
Drake Bridge as viewed at sunrise from the Congress Street bridge by Ted Lee Eubanks

 

With the right department, and the right contacts, the answer is yes. Immediately following the post of this article I contacted Sara Hensley at Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD). Sara immediately responded to my request, reporting the following:

…these fixtures have been ordered, the contractor expects delivery late next week…I expect a possible completion of 2 to 3 weeks from delivery but it may take longer.

All of the lights and globes on the Drake Bridge are being replaced! Late this year, after the Drake Bridge lights have been restored to their original beauty, we will gather at the bridge to thank Sara Hensley, PARD Director. Sara’s response and action are much appreciated by our group, and we want the chance to tell in person how much we appreciate her and her department’s efforts.

 

Drake Bridge and the Austin Skyline by Ted Lee Eubanks
Drake Bridge and the Austin skyline by Ted Lee Eubanks

 

Austin City Hall by Ted Lee Eubanks
Austin City Hall by Ted Lee Eubanks

 

Drake Bridge sidewalk and street lights by Ted Lee Eubanks
Drake Bridge sidewalk and street lights by Ted Lee Eubanks