Local pair say it was all about collaboration on 'gorgeous' bridge

Local pair say it was all about collaboration on 'gorgeous' bridge

NORTH PROVIDENCE - Katherine Abernathy has put her stamp on plenty of picturesque scenes around the world, but says none of those projects compare to the work she did to help create the final look of a new local landmark.

Abernathy, a North Providence resident and president of Abernathy Lighting Design on Thomas Street in North Providence, is the woman drawing wide praise for her elaborate light system on the new Pawtucket River Bridge.

Working closely with Richard Ventrone and his Ventrone Architecture, of North Scituate, Abernathy says she couldn't be happier with the final result of the bridge, a project that was more collaborative than any she had ever worked on before.

"This bridge is so gorgeous during the day, in so many ways it was easy to light, because it just begged for it," she said, adding that the look of the bridge by day gives the lighted bridge "strength and boldness at night."

Find three picture slideshows with this story at www.valleybreeze.com . One depicts the new Pawtucket River Bridge, another some of the designs that were considered along the way, and a third the construction of the original Pawtucket River Bridge when it was first being built more than 50 years ago.

Abernathy said she is not surprised by all of the positive feedback on the new I-95 bridge in Pawtucket, but emphasized that the final product wouldn't be a success without all the work done before she and fellow designer Jason Rainone came along, especially the input of a Pawtucket bridge design task force. The $83 million bridge looks so great that officials from the Department of Transportation should submit the project for a national award, she said.

He's worked on many Rhode Island bridges, said Ventrone, but this is the first one where the final product wasn't just a result of trying to "ornament" the bridge once the basics were in place. Even the Providence viaduct project, which is now commencing, is not being done with the kind of thoughtful consideration and open-mindedness that happened with the planning and construction of the Pawtucket River Bridge, he said.

"I don't think I'm ever going to work on anything as monumental as this," said Ventrone. "This was a team of people really coming together to make something great, and that's rare."

Even the winged motif sculptures that he designed for the top of the bridge are top-of-the-line, said Ventrone, a testament to DOT officials' willingness not to "value engineer" out a part of the project that was "so unnecessary to moving traffic over the bridge."

"They embraced it," he said. "This is the greatest collaboration that I've had."

As Ventrone recalls it, he was working with the Newport Collaborative Architects when DOT officials called him in to put what he calls "lipstick, mascara and rouge" on what was a "very ordinary bridge." Pawtucket residents weren't happy with the DOT's design, said Ventrone, and it was his job to make it look nicer.

"RIDOT really had a problem," he said. "The people of Pawtucket were intent on having something and were not happy with what they showed them."

Chief Enginer Kazem Farhoumand called Ventrone to a meeting with DOT engineers to look at the initial plans for the bridge, which he remembers were "shockingly plain." Ventrone told Farhoumand that he wasn't interested in just dressing up the bridge without first talking to Pawtucket residents to see what their wishes were.

The "bold" and "dynamic" bridge that bridge task force Chairman Richard Kazarian wanted would need careful thought and consideration, he said.

Not long after, Vartan Sahakian, an engineer with Commonwealth Engineers, told Ventrone that he had been thinking about what Kazarian and others were looking for and had come up with a rough sketch of an arched bridge that looks remarkably like the bridge that was completed earlier this month, minus the City Hall-inspired winged motif sculptures that would come later.

Ventrone said he knew right away that the arched bridge was what Pawtucket needed and what would make its people happy. The idea needed a lot of work, but the wheels were turning.

Sahakian and Ventrone were scheduled to present already developed plans to DOT officials the next day, but they decided that they'd go with the sketch. Officials liked the concept, said Ventrone, and many months of planning later, the bridge's eventual design took shape.

No one knows exactly who first brought up the idea of lights for the bridge, said Abernathy, but no one she's spoken to is arguing that they were the right idea, especially after the bridge project came in on time and under budget.

The "strong lines" on the bridge and its pylons "were just begging for lights," said Abernathy, but not just any lights. Nothing about this bridge could be "gimmicky."

When one is lighting a bridge of this complexity and magnitude, each angle must be taken into consideration, she said, and a small mistake can be magnified when the lights go on at night. An expensive mock-up bridge had to be built, complete with hundreds of lights, to make sure everything would work exactly right, she said.

Abernathy said she was nervous on opening night Sept. 7 that the lights wouldn't go on, but was relieved to see the lights go on without a problem.

Abernathy said it was always important to her and others that the people of Pawtucket were happy with their bridge. Seeing the final product so warmly embraced has been a wonderful experience, she said.

Abernathy is glad that the new light system, which is capable of 16 million different color combinations, will be used to celebrate all kinds of holidays, local events and causes. This month the bridge is lighted in purple for the Pawtucket Arts Festival and next month it will go pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Metal-halide and LED lights provide efficient energy and a great effects, according to Abernathy.

The cost of the new lighting system was estimated at $300,000, with Abernathy Lighting Design and Gaskell Associates getting $59,600 of that. The annual cost of operating the lights on the bridge, to be absorbed by the state, is $5,870.

For more on Abernathy and her work, visit www.abernathylightdesign.com .