City of Bridges is the name of the much-acclaimed project that has put Cleveland in the spotlight. Looking for an appropriate way to celebrate the rejuvenation of the city's riverfront, Cleveland's Bicentennial Committee ultimately committed $4.5 million to illuminate eight bridges that span the Cuyahoga River. The river, which has been an integral part of the city's development, divides the city into east and west sides.

City of Bridges proved a challenge, due not only to the varied owners of the properties but also to the many constituencies that have control and influence over the bridges, river, and surrounding areas. "We didn't want a [lighting] designer who would give us strings of Christmas lights. We were looking for a highly creative concept" is how Mike Konacek, Cleveland's public utilities director, described the search committee's view.

Ross De Alessi Lighting Design of Seattle was chosen for the task. The committee was impressed with the way De Alessi, IALD, worked with clients and his past architectural projects, which include San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts and the Palace of the Lost City resort in South Africa.

Cleveland's bridges are symbolic and literal links for the two sides of town. De Alessi gave each bridge a theme that reflects the city's industrial and lighting heritage, noting that the Ohio port has had a history of fascination with light and illumination. The city used architectural illumination extensively at a variety of expositions, including the Industrial Exposition of 1926 and the Great Lakes Exposition in 1936. Cleveland is also home to General Electric's lighting and lamps divisions.

The City of Bridges master plan called for as many as 21 bridge structures to be illuminated, all within a mile of the river's juncture with Lake Erie, around a revitalized restaurant and club area known as The Flats. Among the stone or steel structures are used and unused automotive and railroad bridges and two viaducts. Some have open trestle appearances when viewed from the side and below, and others are solid and imposing. The metal structures, some of which are rusted, are coated or painted in various colors.

To win support for executing City of Bridges, a mock-up was created on several bridges in the summer of 1994. Eventually eight were selected for permanent illumination. The logistics were staggering: Owners of the bridges included the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, a land investment firm, and Conrail, which controlled the active railroad bridges. Lighting placement also meant getting permission from property owners surrounding the bridges.

Says De Alessi, "Various landmarks committees were involved because of the historic nature of some of the bridges. We also consulted with captains of riverboats, since the river is a very active transportation route." Even the Federal Aviation Administration had to give some approvals, because the intense lighting is close to the regional Burke Lakefront Airport and less than 10 miles from Cleveland Hopkins International.

Closest to the mouth of the Cuyahoga is the Conrail No. 1 Vertical Lift bridge, which rises like a window sash between two towers as boats enter the river. The track is busy with trains traveling between New York and Chicago, and boats must pass this bridge to enter the Cuyahoga River from Lake Erie.

De Alessi conceived the lighting design with this bridge as a "sentinel" and a "greeter." In the down position, the bridge is lit with cool metal halides through the towers and track area. The imposing square of the bridge blocks and guards the city. When boats enter, the track span rises like a theatrical curtain, and the colors fade from red to amber to green, matching thebridge's navigation light. The sentinel becomes the greeter.

The master plan continued, "Next an arched wall of cool fog will drop from the bridge roadway as it opens to form the canvas upon which it would be possible for a light artist to paint laser imagery or written salutations. The curtain of fog will appear as a swag style of curtain opening so as not to impede sight in the boating lanes, with special consideration for the large ore boats. It should appear as if these ships are parting the curtain, as in a theatrical spectacle or operatic curtain call. The lights crossfade as the roadway falls, returning the bridge to its strong and ominous presence.

"There also is the potential to introduce animation while the bridge is in its down position. Passing trains can be featured by simple floodlighting at the interior and Flats side of the roadbed, and with the installation of strobe lights the passing cars could be made to look as if they were standing still while continuing to make great train noises, or even make them appear to go backwards." The commission, however, opted for a simpler execution of the design, retaining the exterior and some interior lighting, but dropping the special effects.

Perhaps the most theatrical are the two bascule bridges. A bascule (the French word for balance) is a bridge that rolls back on circular rockers. While opening, the bridge is counterbalanced in all positions. Fully open, the bridge sticks straight up in the air, no longer taking up valuable dock space as a swing span does.

Bascule No. 1 is part of Shooters, a riverside restaurant and bar complex with an extended boardwalk along the river. Patrons sit at tables and on docked boats and watch the movement of bridge, river, and rail traffic. De Alessi made Bascule No. 1, an unused railroad bridge, a tribute to Cleveland's steel industry.

At the base of the bridge, 500W halogen PAR-56 lamps gelled deep red pulsate to suggest a steel forge. The pulsation also reflects the club's lighting as the music is heard clearly outside. From a tower and a roof position, the bridge is washed on two sides with 1kW quartz floods with dichroics.

A 15-minute event, controlled by a Strand Premiere architectural system combined with 46 Strand CD80 Supervisor dimmers, eight non-dims, and 20A constant modules with DMX/SWC control, occurs continuously on this bridge. At the beginning of the sequence the bridge roadway is externally bathed in white light only. Inside, 150W high-pressure sodium linear optic fixtures uplight the counterweight and rocker exterior in a glow. The tower and roof lights in three circuits ramp in sequence from white to amber and then red, growing from the base of the bridge to its 230' (70m) tip. In contrast to this, the old lift motors and gears remain bathed in lavender. The theme "born of fire" is complete.

Bascule No. 2 memorializes the railroad of the past. This bridge attracts attention with its strong magenta and blue exterior, provided by 1,000W metal-halide PAR-64s on towers and in a bunker on the opposite side of the river. The counterweight base is downlit by amber high-pressure sodium floods. The truss of the lever arm is lit with deep blues and the span itself with deep violet.

The bridge has a "Ghost Train" effect, in which the train "headlight" shoots out of the end of the bridge, pointed at the sky. This is a 1kW xenon searchlight. But other components intended for the ghost train weren't used, including the sound of an approaching train as oscillating lights gained intensity. Steam, mimicking a steam locomotive, was also scheduled to pour from the counterweight area as railroad crossing bells and whistles were heard.

The "ghost" of the Ghost Train was disruptive, however, destroying two Martin Roboscans, among other pranks. Greg Shick of Vincent Lighting Systems and Jim Grabowski of Lake Erie Electric spent many long nights troubleshooting. They discovered that the radio waves from the xenon firing interfered with the Strand Premiere, which was eventually extracted (the main area of havoc was the DMX relay driver card). Grabowski substituted two variable cycling timers and the Ghost Train performed flawlessly. The multipin timers proved a perfect mechanical solution for elements incompatible with the computer; time clocks, in fact, are used on all of the bridges, with the exception of the Strand Premiere on Bascule No. 1 and a Payne Sparkman system on the Willow Avenue Bridge.

The Eagle Avenue Bridge typifies the number of instruments used on each of the bridges. Among the luminaires used are Bega 400W exterior floodlights, some with custom lens attachments, as well as 250W fixtures and Gardco 100W metal halides. The farthest from the tourist area, the Eagle Avenue Bridge had design challenges that arose from its location, "in a valley of darkness below the baseball stadium [Jacob's Field]," De Alessi says. Some ore boat captains expressed concern that smaller 50W halide floods on the bridge's undercarriage would cause glare, so a "secret" photocell was installed. The instruments can be knocked out when the boat pilots shine their searchlights at the photocell.

Financing for City of Bridges came from a wide range of foundations, corporations, and the bridge owners. General Electric donated all of the lamps, which include the 175 and 250W MultiVapor units that uplight the towers, internal structure, counterweights, and connection span of the Willow Avenue Bridge. Costs ranged from $100,000 to well over $1 million for each of the bridges, with $300,000 the median amount.

Bridge committee member John Kenley of General Electric emphasizes the importance of maintenance. "I didn't want to see the project completed and then allowed to deteriorate for lack of maintenance support," he says. Each of the bridges has a schedule of maintenance and the owners of the bridges are committed to following it (they also foot the electric bill).

City of Bridges has been applauded not only by Cleveland residents, but by the industry as well. The master plan won the Edison Award, given yearly by General Electric; the Paul Waterbury/JJI Award of Distinction, presented by the Illuminating Engineering Society; and the Award of Excellence from the International Association of Lighting Designers, its only American winner this year. De Alessi says this is the first time that any one project has won all three awards.

Next month, following a period of reconstruction, the largest of the bridges, the Detroit-Superior Bridge, will get its permanent lighting. The bridge links both sides of the river and the city to foot and automobile traffic. "Lighting Detroit-Superior will necessitate making some changes in the other bridges," De Alessi says. "Bascule No. 2 is close to it, so I'll change the colors, using thinner dichroics."

The principals in the City of Bridges project hope the additional excitement of the lighting of the Detroit-Superior Bridge will generate funds for illuminating other bridges. De Alessi would also like to see the animation effects added to the Conrail bridge.

Nightly, Clevelanders visiting The Flats watch the bridges. You see them pointing, smiling, and talking about the symbols of the city. They spin around, surrounded by the kinetic nature of the light and the bridges themselves. Vincent Lighting's Shick recalls a typical Clevelander's awareness of the bridges. "We were outside a local restaurant with a Strand mini-Lightpalette, working on the demo presentation. A young woman came out of the restaurant, saw the 90-year-old bridge, and exclaimed, 'When did they build this!' "

Art Thomas is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. His e-mail address is

CLIENT City of Cleveland Bicentennial Commission

MASTER PLAN Ross De Alessi/Ross De Alessi Lighting Design


PHOTOGRAPHS Donn R. Nottage Jeff Peters Douglas Salin

RENDERINGS Bich-Lien Nguyen

PARTIAL EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS Bega US Inc. Gardco General Electric Hydrel Kim Holophane North Star Lighting Inc. Strand Lighting