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Pawtucket River Bridge, Rhode Island, USA

Issue 78 April / May 2014 : Architectural : Transport


The story of the Pawtucket River Bridge offers a cross section view of American history, from the Industrial Revolution to the Obama Administration. When the bridge’s latest incarnation was constructed, Abernathy Lighting Design made sure the structure’s lighting scheme matched its biography.

The Pawtucket River Bridge in Rhode Island makes up a critical chunk of Interstate 95, the road that carries travellers between Boston and the Island’s most populous city, Providence. The crossing, over the Pawtucket River in the city of Pawtucket, has a long history, the very name of the area originating from the term Native American’s gave to the place where a trail crosses a river.

During the 19th century the bridge became a commercial crossing when America’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution began to gain strength in the area and by the mid-twentieth century Interstate 95 had become the most travelled highway in the nation.

In many ways the bridge in its different forms presents a good picture of the political history of the United States. The original bridge was built in 1958, during a time when President Eisenhower was investing in the nation’s infrastructure. The original art deco style of the bridge was created to reflect the Pawtucket City Hall, itself built in 1933, during another public works programme, created by Franklin Roosevelt to ease the unemployed back into work in the wake of the Great Depression.

On the eve of another financial crisis, the Great Recession of 2008, the 1958 bridge was declared unsafe. Construction on a replacement began in 2010 at a time when another President, Barack Obama, was once again investing in the American infrastructure, this time as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It has been estimated by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation that 162,000 vehicles travel across the Pawtucket River Bridge every day, but the bridge is more than a crucial travel link, it has also, since its creation, acted as an iconic talisman for the city of Pawtucket and the replacement had to echo this sentiment. From hand hewn covered bridges to steel and concrete marvels, Rhode Islanders have long expressed pride in bridges and regard them as iconic structures.

The defective Route 95 overpass created an opportunity to demonstrate that State and Federal wings of government could cooperate, not always an easy task as American politics continues to polarize. Not only did the differing tiers of government have to work together, but they also had to work in concert with a design team eager to present an engaging creative vision to revitalize the city’s historic gateway.
The design challenge was not to create a linkage over a relatively narrow New England waterway, but to convey the series of extraordinary events that have for centuries converged on that very spot.

The project entailed replacing three separate structures with a bridge to carry I-95 Northbound; a bridge to carry I-95 Southbound; and a bridge for the on and off ramps to George and School Streets.
Inspiration for the new bridge’s Art Deco design, once again, just as it did in 1958, came from other structures in Pawtucket built during the Great Depression, such as City Hall, McCoy Stadium and Shea High School.

Inspiration for the new bridge’s Art Deco design, once again, just as it did in 1958, came from other structures in Pawtucket built during the Great Depression, such as City Hall, McCoy Stadium and Shea High School. The new bridge’s four pillars feature representations of Art Deco wings, bringing to mind the eagles chiselled atop the tower at City Hall. The lighting sceme for the bridge was developed by Abernathy Lighting Design of North Providence and is reliant on LED.

The lighting design took inspiration from Pawtucket history, particularly the city’s role as cradle to the American Industrial Revolution. With a strong daytime image due to strong design, the bridge’s night time presence was created by emphasising simple lines and by elevating accents.

One of the key features of the bridge is its Art Deco styled pylon sculptures. The task of lighting these was made simpler due to the use of a full mock up, set up outside Pawtucket City Hall, which allowed a detailed lighting plan to be put together, while the bridge itself was still under construction.

The discreet accents on the north and south arches of the bridge have been lit with four LED, four colour, programmable ‘puck’ lights, provided by Forum which add colour changing light sources to the bridge’s principle architectural features. Uplighting was provided by fixtures from Erco and Kim Lighting, while Lumenton spotlighting fixtures were used on the bridge span.

At night, these pucks, in concert with the pylon sculptures and the fixtures installed on the bridge span are able to change colour, giving the structure a night time character and allowing the bridge to change colour to suit the time of year.

The bridge’s lighting scheme is controlled through an ETC Mosaic Show Controller, integrated by Barbizon, which uses custom scripting to execute programmed lighting looks. This lighting playback device is housed in a weather proof, climate controlled, cabinet and is remotely programmable from the state transportation offices. To manage issues of voltage drop over the project’s long transmission distances, the pylon sculptures serve as distributed power supply cabinets.

In response to concerns over long term maintenance, all Metal Halide luminaires requiring lamp changes are easily accessible and all LED wiring connections are made at roadway level.

Abernathy Lighting Design has developed a lighting scheme that not only respects Pawtucket’s history, but gives the area a landmark for the future.


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