A Bridge Too Far

Opening Image

Historic image of Memorial Bridge in Healdsburg, CA during annual river festival (photo credit: Historical archives)

What role can a urban designer have in preserving history?

In the early 2000’s, the City of Healdsburg, California took over ownership of its one bridge across the Russian River from the California Department of Transportation. Almost immediately there was a call from a number of local groups to tear the bridge down over its presumed obsolescence and structural insufficiency. At the same time there were calls to preserve the bridge, since it had been such an important landmark throughout the history of the town.

Second Image

Healdsburg Memorial Bridge (photo credit: Historical archives, image of bridge just after opening in 1921)


The existing bridge is located at the eastern end of Healdsburg Avenue, at the edge of town, and had for years served as the town’s primary connection to Highway 101. The image below shows the relative proximity to the town and it’s sole connection to Memorial Park.

Existing Bridge Conditions

Healdsburg Memorial Bridge – existing conditions (illustration by author)


The image below depicts a SketchUp model of the bridge, as viewed from the perspective of Memorial Park.

Existing Conditions - SketchUp Model

SketchUp Model of Healdsburg Memorial Bridge (illustration by author and Carlos Rojas)


The engineering consultant hired by the city took the CalDOT evaluation of the bridge’s condition (at that time not knowing what that the report was in error), and developed two separate scenarios which were being considered as potential preferred alternatives. Both proposals indicated that the designs’ visual impact would be minimal. Unfortunately, the engineering consultant had only presented plans and elevations of their proposals for the public to evaluate and determine whether they would concur with their assessment.

The engineering consultants proposals

The following images are recreations of the proposals made by the engineering consultant, but paired with their three dimensional impact — as seen from the vantage point of Memorial Park (from the same perspective of the SketchUp model depicted above).

Preferred Alternative A

Transportation Department's Preferred Alternative A

Engineering consultant’s Preferred Alternative A (illustration by author)

Preferred Alternative A - SketchUp Model

Preferred Alternative A — visual impact from Memorial Park (illustration by author and Carlos Rojas)


Preferred Alternative B

Transportation Department's Preferred Alternative B

Engineering consultant’s Preferred Alternative B – with s-curve to preserve existing road alignments (illustration by author)

Preferred Alternative B - SketchUp Model

Preferred Alternative B – visual impact from Memorial Park (illustration by author and Carlos Rojas)

Rehabilitation as cost-saving alternative

Working with interested preservation groups, which included a retired structural engineer, it was determined that the original CalDOT structural assessment of the bridge was in error. The bridge, despite needing some minor structural repairs and seismic upgrades, had never presented a danger to the public or heavy vehicular traffic. What was needed was a set of images that would evoke the fond memories of the bridge, the town’s historic ties to the Russian River, and a convincing (cost effective) argument for preservation.

Rehabilitated Bridge proposal

Healdsburg Memorial Bridge – a preservation alternative with a river walk improvements (illustration by author)


The following hand sketches were prepared with using the SketchUp model as an underlay, with ink and colored pencil & marker final illustrations.

mem bridge color002

Healdsburg Memorial Bridge Preservation – west embankment showing new pedestrian underpass (illustration by author)

mem bridge color001 copy

Healdsburg Memorial Bridge Preservation – perspective sketch of new west embankment (illustration by author)


This illustrative exercise served to rally a unique blend of preservationists and fiscal conservatives, Friends of the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge. The old CalDOT rating was set aside, the bridge was added to the Historic Registry, a significant preservation grant was awarded, and the bridge is now being rehabilitated in situ.


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