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Looking at the Brown Bridge and seeing red: What’s in a color?

Design Advisory Committee Chairman Pedro Pachano told the selectmen at their Monday meeting that his panel considered several possibilities, including repainting the bridge to roughly match its current color.

Great Barrington — Would a bridge by any other name sound as sweet?

Members of the public may be asking that variation of Shakespeare’s famous line after the selectboard voted earlier this week to recommend that the Brown Bridge be painted red.

The iconic bridge, which crosses the Housatonic River at the intersection of routes 7, 41 and 23, is scheduled for major repairs starting in the summer. The state will also be sanding the steel trusses and applying a fresh coat of paint. So the town’s Design Advisory Committee agreed to review the options and make a recommendation to the selectboard, which will in turn recommend a color to the state Department of Transportation.

See video of Design Advisory Committee chairman Pedro Pachano telling the selectboard of the committee’s recommendation of red as the new color of the “Brown Bridge”:

Design Advisory Committee Chairman Pedro Pachano told the selectmen at their Monday meeting that his panel considered several possibilities, including repainting the bridge to roughly match its current color, which is presumably where the Brown Bridge got its name, or coloring it green, as the Bridge Street bridge currently is.

Pachano said the committee was looking for a color “that could serve as a sort of wayfinding color, and so red was the one.”

“Green would blend in, and nobody likes the color of the Bridge Street bridge,” Pachano continued. “We had thought brown but some people thought it might be good to change. Red stands out.”

The Great Barrington Selectboard discusses the new proposed color of the Brown Bridge. Obscured by a color sampler he is holding up, town manager Mark Pruhenski explains to selectboard members Steve Bannon, Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke Pantone color samples for the Brown Bridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Town manager Mark Pruhenski held up a paper slip with Pantone color samples on it and circled the color recommended by the DAC. It’s called “primer red” and is roughly the same hue as the world famous Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco with Marin County, California. The Golden Gate’s color can best be described as the middle shade of “International Orange” or, in layman’s terms, somewhere in between orange and bright red.

A rusted railing protects pedestrians from falling from Great Barrington’s Brown Bridge into the Housatonic River. Photo: Terry Cowgill

After some initial reluctance, the board voted 4-1 to recommend to MassDOT that the bridge be painted that tint of red. The dissenter was Kate Burke, who said she preferred rainbow colors. She later told The Edge she was not sure MassDOT would approve the multi-colored bridge that she suggested, “but the rainbow [colors] would stand out and be a great welcome to our town as a symbol of inclusiveness.”

“Can we still call it the Brown Bridge?” Selectman Bill Cooke asked, perhaps rhetorically.

Selectman Ed Abrahams said he’d like to see the town formally name it the Brown Bridge. Pachano added that he’d like to see the town appropriate the funds to put up a sign that officially declares the span the “Great Bridge,” as it evidently was known in its heyday. Others have said it was also known as the “Green Bridge.”

So just what is the history behind Great Barrington’s most recognizable bridge? The Edge turned to a pair of notable local historians, Gary Leveille and Bernie Drew — both Edge contributors — for insight.

Leveille said the first bridge to span the river at that spot was wooden and was erected in approximately 1735. Town records, such as they were, indicated that the span needed major repairs or replacement every 12 to 15 years for well over a century.

In a rare September 1931 photograph, the old iron bridge in Great Barrington is seen shortly before it was demolished to make way for the current span. To its right is a trolley bridge which is also gone. Photo courtesy Gary Leveille

Voters agreed to replace it in 1884 with a Berlin iron lenticular truss bridge — a popular design in town. That span lasted until 1931, when it, too, was replaced. According to Drew, that span was 93 feet long and cost $4,300. Not long in service, it began to shake.

“Fred T. Ley of Springfield built the 108-foot replacement span, a Parker pony truss, which still shakes,” Drew said, referring to the feeling experienced by motorists stopped on the bridge for the traffic light when a truck roars over the span.

Vehicles can be seen passing over Great Barrington’s Brown Bridge through its north truss. Photo: Terry Cowgill

That span remains today and, according to Leveille, carries an estimated 18,000 vehicles per day. MassDOT has rated the bridge “structurally deficient.”

“For many years, it was known as the Green Bridge until it was painted brown, perhaps to make the recurring rust less obvious,” Leveille told The Edge.

Drew added that the Brown Bridge was was also historically known as the Great Bridge, a holdover from the Great New England Fur Trail of the 18th century.

The Edge also reached out to MassDOT for more information about the bridge, along with a timeline for the repair work to begin in the summer. MassDOT spokesperson Kristen Pennucci provided the following statement:

The structure is commonly known as the Brown Bridge, likely due to the color of the bridge. The original structure was built in 1931, and last painted in 1981. Since then, it has been called the Brown Bridge. However, District files back to 1946 shows the bridge being called “Great Bridge.” [MassDOT] District 1 [office in Lenox] doesn’t have an official request on file for naming the bridge.

Regarding the current condition of the structure: The bridge is 119’ long with a curb-to-curb width of 40’ and an approximate out-to-out (truss-to-sidewalk rail) of 48’.

A deteriorated railing post on Great Barrington’s Brown Bridge shows evidence of having been painted red, green and perhaps even orange. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The bridge, based on a 6/2019 inspection is currently considered structurally deficient with the superstructure rated a 4, which is considered poor. The latest load rating report was done in 2010 and resulted in the current weight restrictions of 20 ton (H20 vehicle – single rear axle), 25 tons (Type 3 vehicle – 2 rear axles) and 36 tons (Type 3S-2 Vehicle tractor trailer single axle on trailer, single axle on rear of tractor).

Future repairs to this bridge are included under a district-wide bridge repair contract and repairs include, but are not limited to, strengthening existing steel which has deteriorated, repairing bridge rail and painting the bridge.

The current cost estimate for the work to be performed on the bridge is $1.6 million. The plans call for two 12-foot travel lanes during construction with concrete barriers delineating the work zones on the bridge. MassDOT anticipates that there will be times during the setup and takedown of the barriers as outlined in traffic management plan when traffic will be restricted to a single alternating lane.

The project is scheduled to be advertised by the end of this year. Construction is anticipated to begin by the summer in 2020.

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