The Main Avenue Viaduct is the northernmost of the Cuyahoga River bridges
A lovely bridge (for an engineer)
Thanks to the efforts of a Case professor, Cleveland’s Main Avenue Viaduct is now a national landmark.
When you cross the Cuyahoga River Valley on the Main Avenue Viaduct in downtown Cleveland, you’re driving upon a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. That’s thanks to some mighty engineering beneath your wheels, but also to the passion of Dario Gasparini, PhD, an emeritus professor of structural engineering at the Case School of Engineering.
Gasparini championed the span as landmark worthy and built the case:
- Constructed in 17 months in 1938 and 1939, the Viaduct was the longest bridge America had ever seen–and for decades the longest elevated structure in Ohio
- Stretching about 8,000 feet from end to end, it carried the Memorial Shoreway over roads, railroads, factories and the river to speedily connect the east and west sides of the city
- Innovative engineering built a complex crossing that accelerated Cleveland’s industrial might
- The northernmost of the Cuyahoga River spans, it offers magnificent views of a lakefront city
“At the time it was built, it was extremely innovative,” said Gasparini, an expert in the history of structural engineering. “That span was a U.S. record when it opened in 1939. Nothing had been built longer in this country.”
What’s more, Gasparini argues, the design was a marvel of efficiency. It was the Great Depression and money was tight. Yet Cleveland needed a better way to move people and commerce across the Flats separating downtown from the west side.
Chief Project Engineer Fred Leroy Plummer, a professor of civil engineering at the Case School of Applied Science, took leave to accept the challenge. He and his team of more than 30 engineers designed a “continuous structure” that minimized materials and maximized economy.
Some of the viaduct’s notable features include 10 spans of continuous cantilever trusses and overpass plate girders that were the longest ever built in the U.S. The various and distinct structures make it a viaduct, something more than a bridge, and a model of engineering innovation.
“That is often not recognized, the amount of engineering that went into that bridge,” said Gasparini, who retired from full-time teaching in 2015. “And they didn’t have computers. All the calculations were done by hand.”
To cut costs, the designers left out decorative embellishments, which may account for the bridge’s relative anonymity. There are no Guardians of Traffic lording over the Main Avenue Viaduct like there are on the Lorain-Carnegie Hope Memorial Bridge upstream.
Still, it now belongs in the same pantheon as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (enshrined in 1979). The Viaduct was christened a national landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers on October 6, 2021, the 82nd anniversary of its dedication.
Gasparini, who had the honor of unveiling the plaque affixed to the bridge’s southern pier, is not too concerned that the Viaduct lacks the fame of other structural landmarks.
“Any knowledgeable engineer would love that bridge,” he said
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A Case professor led engineering on the Viaduct, now a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
The selection of a Case professor as project engineer made news in 1938.