published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Top recognition for Chattanooga's Walnut Street Bridge is no surprise

  • photo
    People gather Tuesday morning to recognize the Walnut Street Bridge as one of America's Top 10 Great Public Spaces as named by The American Planning Association.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

It really came as no surprise.

When the American Planning Association dubbed the Walnut Street Bridge one of its 10 Great Public Spaces for 2013, it reaffirmed what many Chattanoogans have known for years.

Public officials gathered Tuesday morning to celebrate the recognition of the bridge, which is the oldest and largest surviving truss bridge in the South. Officials said its $4.5 million restoration, a public-private partnership, served as a springboard for the revitalization of the city’s waterfront, downtown and North Shore.

“Yes, this was an artery at one time,” said Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. “But what this bridge has become over the years is the heart of the city of Chattanooga.”

When it opened in 1891, the bridge was the only one connecting Chattanooga to the North side of the county. Before it opened, ferries were the only means of crossing the Tennessee River. But the deteriorated span was closed in 1978 because of safety concerns.

On Tuesday, Karen Hundt, director of the Chattanooga Design Center in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, held up a poster of a black and white photo from the 1980s of the destitute bridge, barricaded by signs.

“It was pretty sad in those days,” she said.

Garnet Chapin, a local architect who worked on the restoration, said the opening of the bridge was meant to help reinvigorate the North Shore area, which was “virtually abandoned” at the time. Since reopening as a pedestrian bridge in 1993, the bridge has become a hallmark of the city.

“Its overwhelming success has led to this outstanding recognition today as one of America’s great public spaces,” Chapin said. “But we knew that all along.”

Ben Probasco, chairman of the 1980s committee that helped save the bridge, couldn’t help but note how far it’s come since its days as a derelict safety hazard.

During Tuesday’s ceremony, a woman approached the South end of the bridge, jogging with her three dogs, as others strolled on the bridge’s wooden walkway.

“Who could ever had envisioned that?” Probasco said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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