Merrill Butler

Merrill Butler is widely acknowledged as the guiding force behind the design and construction of nearly all of this city's marvelous historic bridges.

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[WANT TO WRAP THIS TEXT....BUT DON'T KNOW HOW - HC]    Merrill Butler was born in upstate New York in 1891. He graduated from the old Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, but he never attended college. Instead, he learned civil engineering via a correspondence course. He served as the city of Los Angeles' engineer for bridges and structures (later called engineer of design) from 1923 to 1961. He passed away in 1963 and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

While a few extant bridges predate his era (including the marvelous Buena Vista Viaduct or North Broadway Bridge, designed by Homer Hamlin and Alfred F. Rosenheim), Butler is considered the key contributor to these historic bridges. At least nine historic bridges over the LA River are attributed to Butler. His impressive work can also be found over the Arroyo Seco and many other crossings in central parts of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles' iconic bridges grew out of the late 19th century City Beautiful tradition, when monumental public works were developed in order to uplift the character of urban residents.

In 1924, LA voters approved the $2 million Viaduct Bond Act, which levied a tax to fund the city's ambitious program to upgrade and modernize its bridges. Butler began in the beaux arts tradition that dominated US public architecture at the time. Beaux arts is an architectural style that draws from various European traditions, including Roman imperial, Italian renaissance, and late 19th century Parisian neo-baroque. This style can be seen in the Butler's more ornate earlier bridges, including the 1926 Cesar Chavez Ave. Bridge (originally the Macy Street Viaduct) and the 1925 Olympic Blvd. Bridge (originally the Ninth Street Viaduct).

Butler's later bridges are also spectacular but slightly more streamlined, more modern. Examples include the 1938 Riverside Drive Bridge (at Zoo Drive) and the 1930 Washington Blvd. Bridge. All the bridges reflect a consistency of purpose and vision. Individual bridges display thematic variations from the gothic patterns of the Fourth Street Viaduct to the Spanish colonial style of the Chavez Bridge.

Each bridge features its own unique lighting standards that compliment the individual design. Many of the bridges feature seating areas belvederes (overlook areas), and even fixtures for overhead wires for streetcars (look for these on the Seventh Street Bridge and others) These touches hark back to an age when walking and transit played a more important role in the lives of Angelenos. The detail accorded to the design of public infrastructure waned when the car emerged and began to dominate our landscape.

Merrill Butler's bridges eliminated river and rail crossings to enable the city to grow. The expansion literally paved the way for the highway era. Most automobile traffic is now focused onto freeways, allowing the bridges to lapse into obscurity. Butler was aware of this dilemma; in an April 18, 1938, Los Angeles Times article, he states: "It is difficult for the average motorist to realize how much relief of traffic congestion has been provided... the volume of traffic in the city appears to increase faster than outlets can be built. The result is that automobile traffic still is congested... especially during the morning and evening rush hours." The article tries to put a positive spin on the exigencies of high-speed city traffic, but, even in the midst of the Great Depression, it ends up telling the now-familiar tale that extensive road building wasn't quite the solution to gridlock.

In 1934, the Board of Public Works appointed Butler to serve briefly as city engineer, while longtime city engineer Lloyd Aldrich was in Washington. Throughout his career, Butler gave talks and presentations about various aspects of bridge building and maintenance. He continued to oversee the city engineering design division until his retirement in 1961. In his later years, he was chiefly known for shepherding the creation of the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant.

As a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, the city was faced with ensuring the seismic integrity of the bridges. Some recommended that the antique bridges be replaced with standard CalTrans bridges (historic bridge railings cannot be crash-tested at 70 miles per hour).

Fortunately, the city Bureau of Engineering, under the leadership of dark Robins and others, embarked upon an ambitious program of rehabilitating and reinforcing the bridges. In many cases, the retrofit projects tore down and reassembled bridges in place (generally a half-bridge at a time, so traffic could continue). Many of these projects restored original features that had been damaged or removed many years earlier.

In an October 2000 Los Angeles Times Magazine article, James Ricci quoted Merrill Butler Jr., saying, "My father was as modest a man as you would ever meet ... In his opinion, being a civil servant was a very noble profession. He was proud of working for the city. His ethics were unassailable."

Merrill Butler serves as an example for those of us who strive to make our river and our city beautiful. His amazing bridges stand as monumental legacies.

- Butler text has been graciously provided from the book, Down by the Los Angeles River, by Joe Linton