By KIMEKO MCCOY
Unlike most cities, St. Augustine’s skyline isn’t full of glimmering lights and buildings stretching up to 1,000 feet tall.
St. Augustine’s skyline, in its simplicity, starts with a graceful 1,574-foot bridge that connects the city’s barrier island to the mainland.
Since its initial opening in 1927, the drawbridge has not only carried thousands of people across it on a daily basis, but it also holds the memories of St. Augustine’s growing population.
Today, the noble white marble lions watch the community thrive while they stand guard over the bridge’s west entrance.
Opening with a bang
Isabella Ingraham Heard was just 10 years old when the Bridge of Lions opened.
Although an informal opening had already occurred for the flow of traffic, a formal opening was held in conjunction with the Ponce de Leon celebration on April 27, 1927.
Heard remembers it was raining just a bit as she and a handful of other girls rode on the celebration’s leading float.
One of the girls got to cut the ribbon at the opening of the bridge.
“It was a very fun day for a bunch of little 10-year-old girls,” Heard said.
According to author and historian Thomas Graham’s notes for the city’s historic preservation board, the original transportation from the mainland to the barrier island, Anastasia, was a ferry.
As the city was growing and to encourage tourism, the building of the Bridge of Lions was initiated.
Originally designed by the large Baltimore firm J.E. Greiner Co., the bridge complements the design of St. Augustine’s Spanish and Flagler-era architecture.
According to Graham’s writings, construction of the bridge was contracted to P.T. Cox Co. of New York at a cost of $609,642.
Construction began July 20, 1925, and was completed in time for Heard’s friend to cut the ribbon during the opening ceremony two years later.
As the city continued to grow, the Bridge of Lions needed repair after decades of foot, vehicular and boat traffic.
Concerns were raised in the 1970s after fractures were found in the bridge’s support structure.
In addition to the cracks, narrow travel lanes, safety railings and pedestrian features did not meet Florida Department of Transportation safety standards and the bridge was threatened to be replaced.
By 1999, the Bridge of Lions had found itself listed as one of America’s most endangered places list by the National Historic Preservation Board.
A group of local residents, known as Save Our Bridge, began a campaign to preserve the quarter-mile bridge.
Led by Theresa Segal, the organization’s members spoke out at public hearings, circulated petitions and otherwise encouraged the community to support their cause.
In 2003, rehabilitation was chosen over demolition and in May 2006, the bridge was closed to start a multi-year, $82 million rehabilitation.
Segal’s husband, Joe, is a sculptor and was brought in alongside Enzo Torcoletti to rehabilitate the white marble lions, named Firm and Faithful, that stand at the west entrance of the bridge.
Joe Segal said after the two started poking around the base of the lions, they discovered the space under the lions wasn’t as solid as it should be.
“From years of vibrations and being so close to the road there, there were some hairline cracks starting to form,” he said.
The original 1920s structures were by Italian sculptor F. Romanelli and commissioned by former mayor and medical doctor Andrew Anderson.
Joe Segal said the structures were beautifully done and his intention was to restore them rather than reconstruct them.
“You’ve really got to admire the craftsmanship,” he said.
By 2010, the historic bridge was completed and the following year, the lions were perched back on their stands after being in storage and undergoing refurbishment for six years.
The day the bridge reopened was much like the day it originally opened.
Now 98, Heard recalls the day five years ago was rainy and chilly with lots of people.
She had seen it through the first opening, closing and reopening. For the reopening, she was on ribbon-cutting duty.
“My two little great-granddaughters tried to help me cut the ribbon,” she said. “I was delighted to be invited to do it and delighted to have open, closed and opened it again.”
Then-Mayor Joe Boles said a project of that scale showed St. Augustine’s backbone.
“When you have that big of a project, it really lets the world know our priority is historic preservation,” he said.
Boles said he crosses the bridge several times a day and as an artist, he has featured St. Augustine’s skyline in a number of his works.
“A big high-rise bridge would blank out lots of the scenic vista” he said. “It looks good in a painting. It really does.”