University City Historical Society

University Avenue Bridge

Paul Philippe Cret, architect

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places May 26, 1994


The University Avenue Bridge, an impressive adaptation of modern classicism to a limestone-faced, concrete on steel double leaf bascule bridge, carries university Avenue across the Schuylkill River. Its sweeping monumental piers and towers with bridge operator's houses remain visible from many vantage points. This graceful span forms an integral part of its surrounding cityscape, and serves as a visual landmark along the Schuylkill River.

University Avenue Bridge in 1994
University Avenue Bridge in 1994

The University Avenue Bridge runs north/south across the Schuylkill River, and links University Avenue in West Philadelphia, with South 34th Street in the Grays Ferry section of South Philadelphia. The bridge which has a clear height of thirty feet, measures 536 feet in length, and 100 feet in width. Five lanes wide, it accommodates four lanes of traffic going in two directions. The bridge has a pedestrian walkway on either side.

The University Avenue Bridge consists of a concrete deck on a steel double leaf bascule span. As a bascule or "balance" bridge, it features machinery that enables the deck to elevate in the manner of a drawbridge. The bridge received new bascule lifting machinery, including a new bascule lifting span, most recently in 1983. The bridge contains five steel double leaf bascule spans supported by four massive stone piers and anchored by two large stone abutments. The limestone ashlar masonry-faced solid piers and abutments extend horizontally across the entire width of the bridge. Each pier rests on a steel base with fenders that taper to a point at either of its two ends. The two largest piers located in the center of the bridge, support the two moveable portions of the road bad which raise up on a pivot, and which make up its central bascule span. Across the width, above the base levels of the piers, four small open spandrel arches rest on a continuous sloped sill, on either side, these immense piers extend outward and form two story square towers. An oculus window opening with radiating voussoirs pierces each of the two levels of the towers below the roadway level, and faces out from the north and south sides. Each of these window openings contains a cast bronze three light vertical sash. Above these circular windows, the towers of the central piers terminate with carved limestone cornices. Along the bridge's easterly elevation, each of the two central piers features a giant square buttress pier superimposed upon its tower. These buttress piers which have battered walls, rise to above the deck and guard rail levels of the bridge. At the base level, each of these two piers contains a monumental rectangular pavilion with a parapet that features a rectangular doorway opening. These doorways lead to the three interior levels of the towers and feature ornate cast bronze doors. Near the tops of each of these buttress piers project two limestone brackets. An ornate octagonal bridge operator's house that resembles an ancient Greek tholos, crowns each of the superimposed buttress piers. These two limestone ashlar structures rise high above the deck and guard rail levels of the bridge. They sit on octagonal bases, framed by eight round piers. Each side of the bridge operator's house features a sixteen over three light sash two-part window with cast bronze sash, and also with limestone lintels, sills, and molded panel meeting rails, flanked on either side by narrow eight over two light sash two-part windows of the same materials and embellishment. The piers support an octagonal limestone architrave with entablature. A carved frieze that consists of wheat sheafs and abstract roundels all in a sawtooth pattern, embellish the entablature. Above these an octagonal limestone parapet has carved limestone anthemion-decorated antefixes at the intersection of each of its sides. A limestone ashlar drum with a molded stone cornice rises from the top of each bridge operator's house. The deck elevation of each bridge operator's house features an inverted triangular limestone sloped base on either side of the facade, that resembles a buttress. A large square granite platform above which rises a set of six square limestone side entrance steps issues from each side of the structure. These steps halt at a platform in order to form a landing from which two additional limestone steps terminate at the entrance. The rectangular entrance contains a cast bronze single leaf door with a molded panel meeting rail, and a large six light window with cast bronze sash above. The narrow eight over two light sash two-part windows flank each side of the entrance. A carved limestone medallion surmounted with a stylized porpoise carved in relief, adorns the center of the drum, on both elevations. The exterior illumination of each bridge operator's house consists of an ornate cast bronze lantern suspended from a bronze pole that extends outward from the parapet, and which faces onto the bridge deck.

University Avenue Bridge
Plain steel rails have replaced the original railings on the portions of the bridge that span the water.

Flanking the large central piers, the two smaller bridge support piers rise from near each end of the bridge, half way between the central piers and the bridge abutment. Each of these two piers have smooth rounded corners that extend outward from triangular limestone bases.

At either end of the bridge approaches rest the imposing bridge-abutments. Each of these abutments rises to a pair of tall pylons that in turn extend above the road deck. A large cast bronze lantern surmounts each of the four pylons. These dramatic lighting standards perch on octagonal limestone bases. Each cast bronze lantern has an octagonal base adorned with an anthemion pattern. The lantern consists of a pillar which rises from a ring of gigantic leaves. Chevron and swag motifs ornament the lanterns.

Stainless steel fenders flank the concrete bridge deck, and form five very shallow metal elliptical arches of unequal width at their junction with the four piers and the abutments. The deck which has an asphalt road bed surface, originally included segments laid in wood block. The bridge roadbed and railings continue outward on either side of the bridge abutments onto the banks of the river. The original railings still remain on these entry ramps to the bridge, constructed of patinaed bronze set in between sections of cast stone. They feature sections of vertical post with a swag design running across the top. The cast stone rail portions on the north side of the bridge feature round bronze plaques with the date 1930, the Philadelphia city seal and the names: Harry A. Mackey, Mayor; Edwin R. Coxe, President of City Council; Alexander Murdoch, Director of Public Works; and John H. Neeson, Chief Engineer and Surveyor. On the south side of the deck facing onto the roadway, a rectangular bronze plaque reads:

City of Philadelphia

Department of Public Works

Bureau of Engineering and Surveys

Harry A. Mackey


Alexander Murdoch


John H. Neeson

Chief Engineer


University Avenue Bridge, inscription of rectangular bronze plaque on the south side of the deck facing onto the roadway.

Except for the details of its central piers, the westerly elevation of the bridge matches the easterly elevation. Directly opposite the corresponding twin bridge operator's houses of the easterly elevation, the westerly elevation features two pairs of tall limestone pylons that project from each of its buttress piers. These rectangular limestone pylons are each embellished by a carved band of abstract diamond shapes outlined with pairs of beads. The pylons, surmounted with highly elaborate hexagonal cast bronze lanterns with two-tiered caps, have at their lower portions, a border of cast bronze stylized leaves surrounded by scallop designs. Cast bronze sea horse motifs decorate the upper portions of the lanterns. six narrow pedestals on which rest classical busts, frame and support these embellishments at the intersection of each decorated panel. These pedestals terminate with a cornice situated below the decorated panels of the upper portions of the lanterns. Finials in an artichoke motif punctuate these panels at the junction of each of their intersecting corners. At the top of each of the towers of the westerly elevation, a small limestone balustraded balcony hangs between the pylons. A flat, slender buttress that rises from the base of the towers' piers supports each balcony. Hanging from below the balcony, a carved limestone medallion with classical swags features the coat of arms of the City of Philadelphia.

Statement of Significance

The University Avenue Bridge over the Schuylkill River possesses significance as an outstanding expression in bridge designby the nationally recognized Philadelphia architect Philippe Cret. It also serves as a notable application of the modern classical style to bridge architecture. Furthermore, as one of Philadelphia's only remaining drawbridges, it represents an important work of engineering. Spanning the Schuylkill River between the University City section of West Philadelphia, and the Grays Ferry neighborhood of South Philadelphia, it remains an attractive landmark on this urban waterway.

Paul Philippe Cret, (1876-1945), a highly influential, nationally acclaimed Philadelphia architect and proponent of the Beaux-Arts movement, designed this bridge in 1925, in collaboration with Stephen H. Noyes, an engineer who worked for the City of Philadelphia. The City authorized and planned the construction of the bridge as early as 1924, and the Dravo Contracting Company built it from 1925-1930. It became part of a state highway under the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in 1961.

Paul Cret received his education from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Lyons, and of Paris. During that time he embraced the philosophy of the Beaux-Arts movement. He emigrated to Philadelphia from his native France in 1903, and began his American career as a Professor of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, where he influenced a number of future architects. Cret became one of the foremost advocates of modern classicism, a style that utilized stripped classical forms, and Beaux-Arts planning. He employed this style partly in reaction to the Modernist movement of the early twentieth century, and in order to serve as a bridge between Beaux-Arts classicism and the popular Art Deco style.

Cret's career as an architect in Philadelphia commenced after the First World War. He designed monumental structures of all types during his firm's long, prosperous existence, many of these in the Beaux-Arts tradition. His most important works in Philadelphia include the Frankford Memorial at Wakeling and Large Streets, 1921; the Barnes Museum in Merion, Pennsylvania,.1922-1923; the Integrity Trust Company at 717 Chestnut Street in the same year, and the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia with Jacques Greber, 1928. Cret also designed the influential Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia in 1932. In Washington, D.C., his works include the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Pan American Union. Throughout the country Cret designed major public libraries, museums, and even a college campus for the University of Texas.

During his early architectural career Cret designed his first bridge, the Delaware River Bridge (now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), across the Delaware River between the Cities of Philadelphia, and Camden, New Jersey, in 1922. The engineer for this project was Ralph Modjeski. Cret's successful collaboration with Modjeski and with Modjeski's partner and successor, Frank M. Masters, lasted throughout their professional careers, and produced many other famous and attractive bridges. Moreover, there exist references that suggest some involvement of this renowned engineering firm in the design of the University Avenue Bridge. In the 1920's, a more progressive approach to bridge building became prevalent, whereby construction engineers designed highway bridges in collaboration with consulting architectural firms. This process continued throughout the 1930's. As this new approach to bridge building emerged, Cret applied his own principles and thoughts on modern classicism to bridge designs. The sophisticated forms of modern classicism adapted well to limestone-faced bridges.

Several features of modern classicism characterize the structural and decorative elements of this bridge. These intact features include the two sleek central towers with buttress piers at the central span of the bridges, and the prominent limestone and cast bronze bridge operator's houses, each of which resembles a Classical Greek tholos. Instead of Classical Greek columns, Cret substituted simplified round piers without capitals. Modern classicism also appears in the elaborate classical detailing of the soaring bronze lanterns on the pylons at the bridge's westerly elevation, and in the cast bronze lanterns of the abutment piers at each bridge approach. Other stylistic features include the monumental pavilions at the bases of the towers at the bridge's central span.

Other bridges in the City of Philadelphia designed by Cret include the Wissahickon Memorial Bridge (now the Henry Avenue Bridge), which Cret designed in collaboration with Frank M. Masters, in 1927, and the Tacony Palmyra Bridge, 1928. Cret also designed notable bridges in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in Washington, D.C., among other locations. These bridges attest to a period of intense bridge building in Philadelphia. The University Avenue Bridge, built during this era, possesses significance for its 1ocation in an area that experienced progressive industrial and residential development along both sides of the Schuylkill River. Industrial expansion along the Schuylkill riverfront, the closing of the housing development frontiers of South Philadelphia's western extremes, and new development in Southwest Philadelphia, indicated the necessity for access to and from these areas for their workers and residents. Finally, the constant expansion of the University of Pennsylvania campus near the west bank of the river, and the laying of new roads such as University Avenue, from which the bridge derives its name, ensured the success of the new bridge enterprise. Thus the University Avenue Bridge also served as a crucial link between South and West Philadelphia.

The University Avenue Bridge stands as an excellent extant application of the modern classical style to an important early twentieth century steel on concrete double leaf bascule type drawbridge. At the time in which Cret designed the bridge, steel served as the preferred material for the construction of bridges. Steel construction provided many advantages in bridge building over traditional stonemasonry construction. Steel proved capable of producing greater and lighter spans than heavy stone construction. Steel construction also significantly reduced bulkiness in bridge building. This efficient and economical use of steel enabled bridge engineers to design structures that bridge builders erected at much less expense, and in shorter time periods. Unlike more conventional drawspans, a bascule bridge functions as a counterpoise bridge in which counterbalance weights assist the raising of the platform. Counterpoise bridges contain machinery capable of rotating in a vertical plane about axes, at one or both ends. The much more recent Passyunk Avenue Bridge, and the University Avenue Bridge remain the only two extant double leaf bascule type drawbridges on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Higher fixed spans have replaced all of the other steel double leaf bascule spans that once crossed the river.

In the early twentieth century, Philadelphia sustained most of its major waterfront industrial activity along the Delaware Riverfront. However, parts of both the east and west banks of the Schuylkill Riverfront remained heavily industrialized, and served a heavier volume of industry-related water traffic. At the time of the bridges' completion, the numerous coal companies, and ice manufacturing companies located along the Schuylkill River banks above the University Avenue Bridge in the city's Rittenhouse, Schuylkill, and Gray's Ferry sections, relied partially on water transport for moving their cargo, which they deposited in the numerous coal and ice yards found along the Schuylkill River banks. In addition to these trades, there existed several fuel oil companies. These local industries employed barges pulled by tall-stack tug boats for carrying their cargo. The industries that lined the Schuylkill River banks below the lower, fixed span of the Walnut Street Bridge dictated the necessity of constructing the University Avenue span as a drawbridge. Industry-related traffic on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia persists today, and the University Avenue Bridge opens for barges guided by tugboats at an average rate of once a day. The barges carry heating oil, and also service The Philadelphia Electric Company power plant.

The University Avenue Bridge's modern classical lanterns and towers make it conspicuous among the railroad and expressway bridges near it. The bridge ornaments its setting as an architectural gem over this stretch of the Schuylkill River.

Paul Philippe Cret's architectural rendering of the University Avenue Bridge remains significant for its sophisticated application of modern classicism to an important twentieth-century Philadelphia bridge. The bridge possesses engineering significance as a rare example of a drawbridge in Philadelphia, and for its steel on stone clad design. Lastly, the bridge possesses significance as a visual landmark in southwestern Philadelphia.

This National Register nomination was prepared by Michael J. Steffe.

Major Bibliographical References

Secondary Sources

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