Liberty Bridge, Falls Park transformed downtown 10 years ago

anniversary downtown

THE GREENVILLE NEWS / Archives

Construction work on the Camperdown bridge over the Reedy Rivers falls in 1960.

This article was originally published in The Greenville News on Oct. 6, 2014.


It takes a community to build a bridge, and Greenville's Liberty Bridge in Falls Park is no exception. As the pedestrian bridge spanning Reedy River Falls marks 10 years, its promise to downtown is coming to fruition.

The apprehension seems exotic, almost impossible to imagine today.

This Liberty Bridge is an engineering marvel, held aloft by a web of steel cables, the platform curving gently away to defer its majesty to the falls of the Reedy River that have come to define Greenville.

Its purple nighttime glow ignites downtown, a beacon that feels as if it were destined to be, though for decades it was difficult to envision.

Ten years have passed since the public first set foot on the bridge.

This is where men on bended knee make their marriage proposals, where teens squeeze in tight with smiles full of braces to frame their selfies, where business recruiters close on multimillion-dollar deals.

This is our postcard.

Today, those instrumental in fulfilling a vision nearly a century in the making will gather to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Falls Park, the marvelous setting of the diamond that is Liberty Bridge.

The bridge is internationally renowned, a crowning achievement of the Boston architect who designed it.

Its realization required a vision few could see, obscured by the once-polluted water of the Reedy and the concrete monster of a bridge that hid downtown's grandest view.

"Greenville never had an iconic image," Greenville Mayor Knox White says today. "The bridge became that."

It was always there

Loose pages fall from the little green book the mayor keeps with him and often refers to as proof that Greenville is following a vision shared at the turn of the 20th century.

Printed in 1907, "Beautifying and Improving Greenville South Carolina," prepared by Boston landscape architecture firm Kelsey & Guild for the city's Municipal League, presents a plan for Greenville that, in ways beyond Falls Park and the Liberty Bridge, resembles today's broader vision of downtown.

The falls are "without doubt the most important single feature to be considered in the development and beautifying of the city," reads a passage from the chapter titled "Redeeming Reedy River."

The falls and the river stream "right in the heart of the city," they wrote, are "an object of scenic beauty the like of which few cities can boast."

Yet, they warned that the resource "is being rapidly destroyed and wasted and the proper use of one of the city's greatest assets perverted."

It was the strongest language they used to describe Greenville's obvious abuse of its natural treasure, White said.

"They were too nice to say so throughout the whole thing," he said. "But they thought the Reedy River was amazing."

It would take more than half a century before the community would begin to come around.

The falls were the birthplace of Greenville, when in 1768 Richard Pearis of Virginia settled there to build his grist mill and trading post with the Cherokee natives.

A village grew

Like today, the falls were the first place visitors were brought.

However, the same textile industry that greased Greenville's thriving economic engine transformed the river into a cesspool that the community turned its back on.

In 1960, the fate of the falls seemed sealed when construction crews bored into the riverbed with concrete pillars to support the four-lane Camperdown Bridge, a structure built for utility that made sense at the time.

The bridge blocked the falls from view and became a haven where thieves and robbers would flee after committing a crime, White said.

For any vision of a grand city park to materialize — let alone a transformative pedestrian bridge — the Camperdown Bridge would have to be torn down.

But first, a women's gardening group would have to invest their faith and their hands.

Women of vision

In 1967, the Carolina Foothills Garden Club reclaimed 26 acres for what is now Falls Park, with the help of the city and Furman University. Photos show them kneeling down to pull weeds, dressed in fancy clothes.

Some of the key women involved in the genesis of Falls Park are gone now — Harriet Wyche, Minor Mickel, Pedrick Lowrey — but others would finish their work.

Anna Kate Hipp — who helped raise funds for a $3 million park endowment, including a $500,000 from Liberty Corp. that secured naming rights to the Liberty Bridge — considers herself among the garden club's "second generation."

The club has handed over care of the park's gardens to the city and now acts in a fundraising and supportive role, she said.

"The garden club had the vision that something needed to happen in that part of Greenville long ago," Hipp said. "The garden club has, I guess, been the conscience of the garden to be sure that it doesn't get to be less than it has been or should be."

The club's work began to pay off by the 1980s. The mills had closed. The river was cleaner.

The Peace Center came along. The West End, a place few dared to walk at night, began to feel the potential for new life.

In 1990, landscape architect Andrea Mains introduced the idea of transforming Falls Park into a signature piece of downtown, with public gardens and a pedestrian bridge.

The plan — funded through hospitality tax money set aside only for tourism-related projects — would cost $13 million.

Still, the Camperdown Bridge stood in the way.

"Looking back, we were trying to sell the idea of spending $13 million to build a park around a waterfall that few had ever seen," White said. "It was a very hard sell."

White said he encountered crossed arms and dour faces when speaking at public gatherings about tearing down the bridge. Why tear down something that works?

But, White said, opinion began to turn when former city parks director Paul Ellis had a postcard printed with a painted rendering of the park, complete with a curved pedestrian bridge.

The mayor would carry a postcard with him to show his audience. The subject no longer was just about tearing down the bridge. The city eventually mailed them out.

The city had commissioned dueling traffic studies over the years. One said destruction of the Camperdown Bridge would create traffic chaos, detailing the cost to motorists to the dollar. Another study determined the impact would be minimal.

An election brought in a new council with new ideas.

In February 2001, City Council chambers were packed with speakers lining up to participate in a public hearing. The council voted two weeks later to tear the bridge down, piece by piece, at a cost of $1 million.

The morning the bridge was closed, the mayor and the city manager peered through binoculars through the window of the mayor's top-floor office in City Hall. They were looking for traffic that would surely back up on Falls Street.

They saw nothing. The city had budgeted $2 million to widen Falls Street. "We never spent a dime of it," White said.

What next?

Although it was finally gone, the specter of the Camperdown Bridge made some leaders wary of proposing another bridge, pedestrian or not, White said.

A consensus quickly formed: There must be a bridge to see the full vision of the park fulfilled.

But what kind of bridge?

Framing the falls

Miguel Rosales was an MIT grad and Guatemalan immigrant just beginning to make a name for himself as a bridge architect in Boston, where he designed a vehicular bridge over the Charles River reminiscent of the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston.

Rosales had started his own firm a few years earlier. He had an interest in designing a pedestrian bridge. Greenville had turned its focus from tearing down a bridge to building one and was looking for innovative ideas.

"I remember coming to the site and seeing how that highway bridge had really destroyed the park," he said. "You couldn't see the falls. When they said it was going to come down, then it really opened the opportunity to make this new pedestrian bridge."

The city invited designers to submit suggestions. What came back, for the most part, was too staid, White said.

Rosales, though, "got it."

Rosales envisioned a suspension bridge with cables that would hang free from any view of the falls.

The bridge would curve away, accentuating what was important.

"The city wanted to do something that was very transparent and very light, something unique that would kind of signify the rebirth of the park," Rosales said. "We wanted to move the bridge away from the falls. That's why we curved the bridge, to create an area where you could look at the falls and not be over it."

The bridge would cost $4.5 million and take 14 months to build.

The late Tom Keith, a landscape architect at Greenville's Arbor Engineering, spent two years in the park, tweaking elevations, fretting over the smallest details. The bridge had been designed, but Keith wanted it two feet wider.

He was the man with his feet on the ground, White said. He got what he wanted.

The city had to reach across the Atlantic to Germany to find a firm capable of engineering the bridge, White said, because such bridges were novel in the United States.

The Germans had created a cottage industry rebuilding bridges. There were so many destroyed during World War II.

The German firm Schlaich Bergermann and Partner was selected.

In the days before the bridge's opening in September 2004, one of the engineers called White to witness a pivotal moment in the bridge's construction.

The bridge's deck and support system had been built on scaffolding. The final wire was to be attached, and from there the bridge would "lift off" into the air.

The engineer, who White said had yet to show any signs of a sense of humor, told him, "You must come down and see this. It will either work or it will end up in Spartanburg."

Unlike today, there were no smart phones readily available to crowd-source multiple-angle videos.

The bridge's lift off made a sound that White said he can't describe. The sight proved to him that the web of cables wasn't ornamental. It, indeed, was a suspension bridge in the truest sense.

A living thing

Anyone who has walked the Liberty Bridge knows that it moves under foot.

Unsettling perhaps, but this is normal for lighter structures, said David Greenwold, the Liberty Bridge's structural engineer.

The bridge — which can safely hold 1,300 people at a time — spans 345 feet over the Reedy River and gradually inclines 12 feet from east to west.

The bridge is carried by a single suspension cable that is hung from two, 90-foot towers on either side, each weighing more than 28 tons and resting on steel piles and rock anchors bored 70 feet deep into the bedrock.

The towers, which can be seen beyond Falls Park, appear as two figures towing backward (at a 15-degree angle).

Smaller "hanger cables" attach on only one side of the bridge deck, which is supported with a 4-foot deep truss.

The torsion created is countered by a "ring cable" below the deck that follows the deck's curvature and is also anchored to the ground on either end.

The bridge's varying mechanisms work with and against each other to strike the right balance.

"The system doesn't simply support a curved walkway," Greenwold said. "The curved walkway is an integral part of the system."

In 2005, the bridge won the prestigious Arthur G. Hayden Medal for "a single recent outstanding achievement in bridge engineering demonstrating innovation in special use bridges such as pedestrian, people-mover, or non-traditional structures."

Rosales said he considers the bridge his signature pedestrian bridge achievement.

The bridge is the capstone of a park that has inspired a wave of prosperity throughout the West End, particularly the construction of the Greenville Drive's minor league baseball park, itself an award-winner.

The park was integral to the multimillion-dollar development of RiverPlace, spawning more high-end development.

"We spent $13 million on the park," White said. "Within two years, we had about $100 million private investment. It happened more quickly than we thought. Ten years later, we're feeling the impact."

Eric Connor (Published Oct. 6, 2014)