Preservation consultant assesses plan for Centre Avenue Bridge

Blog Image 982908 - Reed
Centre Avenue Bridge connects Newtown Borough and Township. (Bill Reed/Staff)

March 2, 2012

Monica Harrower
Cultural Resource Specialist
PennDOT, District 6-0
7000 Geerdes Boulevard
King of Prussia, PA 

Over Newtown Creek, Newtown Boro & Twp, Bucks Co.
MPMS# 93439, Key #000183 & #082519

Dear Monica,

It has come to my attention that PennDOT has proposed plans for a major “rehabilitation” of the historic stone arch bridge that carries Center Street over the Newtown Creek from the township into the borough.  As has been noted by area residents, the bridge dates from 1796 and is the oldest bridge in Bucks County.  Ironically, at the public session sponsored by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, PHMC, last fall to identify elements of the development heritage of the county that help define the importance of bridges and transportation, the discussion group chose the Newtown Center Street Bridge as the one bridge that best exemplifies much of Bucks County’s unique history and character. 


Most obvious is the age of the bridge, built during the time that Newtown served as the county seat.   It facilitated access to the county courts and administration, as well as associated market fairs, for most of the county’s residents living to the north and west of the borough.  Its construction is concurrent with a nearby county building featuring the rough cut ashlar stonework popular during this period.  Primarily it stands for the local achievement of the county under the newly formed United States Government to carry out public works projects in noble and enduring craft and design, as a point of inspiration of quality and permanency.

The nature of the stone masonry and the bold Roman arch construction are especially exemplary in the Newtown context, an area noted for its fine brown sandstone and resultant heritage of fine masonry technique.  The Roman arch was favored, not only as an expression of democratic achievement in the New Republic but also as a statement of the mature evolution of this area of the county, with a settlement history for over one hundred years. 

The placement of the bridge is in the Newtown Common, an area set aside as a green public space by William Penn’s surveyors.  It serves as a site marker to recall this 17th century land planning feature that has relevancy today.  The bridge spans from the borough into the township and is highly visible both via vehicular traffic and pedestrian walkways.  Active parking areas adjacent provide visitors and residents the daily inspiration of viewing the stone arch bridge.  Walkways allow pedestrians to view the bridge on its outside faces, in addition to easily seeing the original datestone placed on the crest of the arch.  Round date placques were in vogue during the decades transitioning the 19th century mark, this one, as many during this period, outlined in brick to accent against the stone.  Rehabilitation of the bridge by the county in 1875 century not only affirmed the importance of preserving this landmark, but also assured that the work retained much of the essential character of the stonework, the local stone and the assembly in random coursed fashion similar to other area buildings.

Plans outlining the proposed work share a similar approach to stone arch rehabilitation that has been used in recent years on other bridges in the county.   The “no adverse effect” determination for the work is clearly a misrepresentation of the reality.  The project proposed will certainly have an adverse effect on the bridge, its character defining features and this “common” area of the historic district.  The proposal essentially involves the entire demolition of the bridge above the actual stone voissours and barrel of the arch.  The superstructure, including the approach wing walls and the parapet walls on the deck is then sealed and reconstructed in concrete, with thin veneer stone placed on rigid rectangular walls.  Date placques are then placed in this artificial assemblage of odd shaped stones that have no relationship to one another.  What is lost is the reality of stone work, of the principals of gravity, of the personal skills of the local masons, as well as the workable character of the local stone.  What is lost is authenticity, the genuine article, the story of continuity of stone heritage over two hundred years.  What is lost is the feeling and association that attends and defines the art of stone masonry and gives it its time and place.  What is lost is the actual liveliness, the energy that stone walls possess. 

Real stone compiled into construction must obey the laws of gravity, the proper laying up of the stone responds to these forces and allows the energy lines to follow through the wall.  This response and obedience to natural forces is an innate character of stone masonry and is an attraction that other natural beings, such as humans, can experience, consciously or unconsciously the energy in its successful obedience to gravity.  When the stone walls are destroyed and a sharp, rectangular concrete form put in its place, there is a defiance of gravity and loss of liveliness.  The wall is static, lifeless.  The cartoon-like “lick-um-and-stick-um” stone facades only obey the horizontal force of the glue, not the vertical force of gravity, and essentially float without any relationship to one another.  Is

this the stone heritage that our generation is willing to pass on the the future?  One only has to visit bridges completed in Springfield, Hilltown and Solebury townships to see the edgy, high rectangular wing and parapet walls faced with odd-shaped stones that have lost any interest, any ability to convey the story of the bridge’s past, the allegiance to the local craft and stone sources.  They have lost the rounded edges, the flow of energy through the structure, the personality, the feeling and association that was once distinctly that bridge in that area.  They are lifeless cartoons that speak to the ignorance of our current society to the ancient knowledge of man’s simplest and most exquisite art form, that of hand crafting beauty in everyday structures using the local materials and the coveted masonry tradition handed down through generations.

Bucks County is fortunate to have a number of stone arch bridges that compliment the stone masonry heritage of its 18th and 19th century houses, barns, stone walls and public buildings.  Throughout the county are a variety of geologic regions and types of stone, throughout the county are a variety of cultural groups and preferences, throughout the county are a variety of examples of masonry craft that united the local geology, the tradition and preference of the residents and the skill of the masons who had the knowledge to assemble these components in response to natural forces to provide a lasting structure.  The county today is fortunate to still have highly skilled stone masons who are able to continue this unique knowledge and craft.  How insulting is it to have agencies charged with the care of our heritage, charged with the maintenance of our landmarks to propose such a Disney-like and dizzifying virtual reality solution to the preservation of our oldest bridge in the county.

I would ask that PennDOT revise its plans to a true restoration of the stone arch bridge, one using the best talent of stone masons available and the best knowledge of mortars and masonry.  Consensus in the preservation community over the last several decades has been to dissuade the use of any cement-like mortars in historic masonry repairs.  I would question the current practice of involving large amounts of concrete in, around and on top of the historic stone arch vaults.  I would ask that true stone masons be brought to the design table, not just engineers trained in concrete construction.   We have a resource that is accorded the honor of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and that contributes to a National Register Historic District.  These designations are in place to assure that the proper historic treatments for restoration are carried out on buildings and structures recognized as important to our heritage, not only in this county, but also the nation.  The original builders of the bridge gave us an inspiring structure that has lasted over 200 years.  The current and future citizens of Bucks County deserve the best and most respectful treatment of this historic resource so that it can inspire for another 200 years. 


Kathryn Ann Auerbach
Preservation Consultant