Massachusetts SuperGraphic

The Leonard P. Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

Bridge Builder – Christian Menn

In February 1991, a Boston-based design committee, seeking to revise earlier designs and tentative bridge plans that had been heavily criticized during the early 1990s, was linked to renowned Swiss bridge designer and engineer, Christian Menn. Spiro Pollalis, a professor of design technology and management at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, invited Menn to speak at a architectural technology conference. At the time, a proposed plan was under intense scrutiny from the local population. The plan, which included 16 lanes in a series of loop ramps climbing 100 feet over the water, was considered to be very cumbersome and unsightly. Menn first became interested in submitting his own ideas for a bridge design plan during a discussion with Pollalis at the conference.

Menn proposed a modern, sleek, cable-stayed bridge which would carry 10 lanes of traffic over the river keeping in mind that the city of Boston had an opportunity to build a bridge that could become asymbol of the city. The design caught on quickly as the proposed bridge would be clean and simple, while providing a striking memorable addition to the Boston skyline. Local support for the design was rapid and complete and planning commissioners liked what they saw as well. Previous ideas and plans were scrapped and Menn was hired as a consultant for the building team.

In an interview with Doug Gavel of The Harvard University Gazette, Menn shared his thoughts at the time of his selection. “For me it was a great honor that I could elablorate the concept for the Charles River bridge,” Menn said. “It was the biggest adventure in my professional life – not only because it is an interesting and original bridge, but I think also because it is in a very interesting, academic city... I feel that designing a bridge in such a city is absoutely fantastic. This is the most important bridge I have ever designed.”

The bridge design was unique in several ways and at 183 ft. wide, remains the widest cable-stayed bridge in the world. Its hybrid design, using both concrete and steel, it features diamond-shaped pylons as its main supports. The cables are anchored to the median of the roadway at its two ends and to the edges of the bridge along the main span. The parameters of the construction limitations made it necessary to have an unusual cable arrangement.

The bridge is very, very complicated because there are a lot of complicating boundary conditions. For instance, the bridge is very wide and the clearance beneath is very severe,” Menn said. “I tried to find a solution which could satisfy all of these boundary conditions and from there I came to this concept.” Menn continued, “This is a very interesting bridge site – at the beginning of downtown Boston. For that reason, the bridge serves a certain gateway function...and the diamond pylons could satisfy this gateway function...but the most important thing was the arrangement of the cables.”

Undoubtedly, the design was an impressive way to meet many challenges of its complicating location. Afterward, Pollalis reflected, “It has accomplished everything a bridge should accomplish in Boston. It gives us identity. It is functional. It is gracious. It's different from all other bridges in the world. The cross-section will give an unforgettable experience to drivers, with the cables creating architecturally interesting spaces and the pylons acting as gateways to the middle span of the bridge over the Charles River.”

Building Bridges

The official name of the world's widest cable-stayed bridge is the Leonard P. Zakim – Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge. It's commonly referred to as the “Zakim Bridge” or the “Bunker Hill Bridge”by local residents. The full name of the bridge commemorates Boston's own civic leader Lenny Zakim and Boston's historical Battle of Bunker Hill.

Leonard P. Zakim

Leonard P. Zakim worked tirelessly for decades to build bridges between people. After struggling through anti-Semitic harassment in his youth, Zakim spent his life-time working to make a difference and to bring together Boston's disparate ethnic groups. His experiences studying racial and religious persecution at the American University and the New England School of Law, set the stage for him to make a difference after his appointment to New England Anti-Defamation League. He worked relentlessly to bridge gaps between Jewish and Catholic communities, strength African-American and Jewish relations, and also to educate Boston's children through his Team Harmony Program, and for his involvement at all levels of commitment to racial and religious understanding. Until his untimely death at age 46 from cancer,  Zakim was involved in numerous efforts which sought to promote a society that would bring people together and cultivate cross-cultural understanding. Honoring his legacy through the name of the new bridge was a perfect fit to his life's work.

Bunker Hill Memorial

Also honoring the legacy of Boston's role in the birth of a nation, the design of the bridge incorporates aspects of the nearby Bunker Hill Monument tower. The Bunker Hill Monument was constructed over a period of 18 years – breaking ground 50 years after the Revolutionary War's Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775. The decisive battle was one of the most important colonial victories of the Revolutionary War and provided inspiration to the revolutionary cause. In 1825, the cornerstone of the monument was laid to begin the construction of the one of the most significant memorials of its time. The granite project took 18 years to complete and was dedicated on June 17, 1843 – 68 years after the famous battle.

One hundred and 60 years after the Bunker Hill Monument was dedicated, the Leonard P. Zakim – Bunker Hill bridge was dedicated on Oct. 6, 2002. Honoring both Boston's history-making battle in the American Revolution and its community-building resident, Leonard P. Zakim, the dedication ceremony included salutes to both.

"The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is setting a wonderful precedent in naming this bridge after Lenny Zakim and the citizens who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, I am proud that we are celebrating the ideals of patriotism, freedom and diversity by dedicating this bridge in their honor. May this remind us all of the difference that one person's decision to stand up to injustice and fight for freedom, respect and diversity can make in the lives of others and in the history of our nation."

Governor Jane Swift at 2002 Bridge Dedication

"The dedication of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge will showcase the diversity and the unity of race, religion and personal background that exists in Boston today because of the work of  community leaders like Lenny Zakim and because patriots fought long ago in Charlestown to make our country independent."

Mayor Tom Menino at 2002  Bridge Dedication

"Lenny lived by the belief that each of us has a moral responsibility to make the world a better, more inclusive and respectful place for all people. He worked tirelessly to build personal bridges between our city's diverse people and neighborhoods. He would be so proud to know that this magnificent structure will stand as a symbol of unity, hope and respect for all Bostonians."

Joyce Zakim, wife of activist Lenny Zakim at 2002 Bridge Dedication

Related images

The Leonard P. Zakim - Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge at night
The Leonard P. Zakim - Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge view at night.

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