Depression-era Footbridge Has Ashton Influence

Thursday, July 17, 2014
Black-and-white photo of IMU footbridge
The Iowa Memorial Union Footbridge, shown here in 1937, helped connect the east side
of campus to the growing university presence west of the Iowa River. All images from the
F.W. Kent Collection (RG 30.0001.001), Scenes series, Iowa City sub-series, “Bridges”
folder, University Archives, Department of Special Collections, UI Libraries.

(Editor’s note: The Old Gold series provides a look at University of Iowa history and tradition through materials housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections.)

As Old Gold writes this, the rising and temperamental Iowa River is easing off a bit, laying to rest—for now, at least—our worst fears of another flood in Iowa City. Preparations are under way, though, in case the water rises.

Flooding divides communities, but bridges bring them together. The Flood of 2008 forced the closure of the Iowa Memorial Union Footbridge for more than a year, but it didn’t stop the Depression-era structure entirely—a sign of strength and hope for a beleaguered campus in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in its 161-year history.

Construction of IMU footbridge
Union Footbridge under construction, 1934.

The footbridge, alternately known as the Fine Arts Bridge, was constructed in 1934 with funds provided by the Works Progress Administration, the largest and arguably most ambitious federal agency created by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By the early 1930s, the campus expanded substantially west of the river, including the university’s new fine arts complex, the College of Medicine, and what would later become one of the nation’s largest public teaching hospitals. To accommodate this growth, university president Walter Jessup envisioned a footbridge to link the original campus with the new.

Woman sitting near fountain
Woman at fountain near Union Footbridge,
between 1936 and 1939.

Designed by Ned L. Ashton, an Iowa City consulting engineer and, later, a member of the College of Engineering faculty (also member of the Legacy of Iowa Engineering), and George Horner, university architect, the bridge was constructed of concrete using granite aggregate for greater durability. The general contractor was Stark Construction Company of Cedar Rapids. Its three spans—two approaches and a center section—are a combined 410 feet in length. To minimize obstruction of the Iowa River, the piers are parallel to the way the river flows, an innovative design at the time of construction. A fountain was later constructed on the east end of the bridge as a memorial to the Class of 1936.