A Toll Bridge Of A Different Sort

Posted: June 22, 1988

As the great bridge over Trout Run in Gladwyne nears completion, that inevitable, and somewhat delicate question has been posed: For whom should the bridge be named?

A politician? A poet? Bill Owens?

"Oh no, not me," said Owens, a former newspaper photographer turned Main Line developer.

Owens is paying $150,000 to build a 70-foot bridge over a foot-deep creek. The bridge will service a single house.

He insists that credit go where it is due: "Name it after my checkbook."

The bridge is rising in a wooded bend off of Mill Creek Road, and now resembles a shrunken airport runway. It is aimed into a hillside where Owens

plans to build a deluxe, contemporary-style home.

While it may lack pulsating laser lights, the 140-ton bridge, and its price, are spectacular enough for Owens.

"When I started, I had no idea it would come to this. As soon as the engineer came in he started to scare me," said Owens.

"I said 'What do I know about a bridge? I just want to get across a little puddle-jumper."

CAUSING A STIR

The magnitude of the construction project has caused a stir in the quiet, exclusive neighborhood off of Gray's Lane, where a caravan of bulldozers, cement trucks and a 150-ton capacity crane has been lodged for about two months.

"Naturally, everybody is curious about what we're building here," said Owens. "I tell them it's the Blue Route or I tell them it's low-income HUD housing," Owens said. "With that, they drop their jaws and drive off in their Mercedeses, shaking their heads."

Robert Duncan, director of Lower Merion Township's building department said that although there are many private bridges in Lower Merion, "none of them are anywhere near this size."

Owens' engineer, Roman Jastrzebski, of BRC Corp. in Chalfont, Bucks County, designed the bridge to meet highway standards. The bridge will be able to bear the weight of fire trucks, moving vans and the 40-ton concrete trucks that will pass over it during construction of the house.

Jastrzebski has been on the site, monitoring construction and fielding questions from the curious.

"They come up and ask 'what are you building?' We tell them a bridge, and they say 'A bridge to where?'," Jastrzebski said. "And when you say it's to one house they say, 'I can't believe you're doing all that for one house.' "

PEW ESTATE

The three-bedroom house will be constructed on a sloped, one-acre lot that was once a part of Knollbrook, the estate of J. Howard Pew, president and chairman of the Sun Oil Co. The wooded property is adjacent to a gazebo built by the Pews along an eight-foot waterfall.

The house, which will sell for about $850,000 to $900,000 depending on how many custom features are added, will have a tin roof, a Jacuzzi and, of course, the bridge.

When Owens first proposed developing the site, neighbors attended township meetings to protest the construction, complaining that it would take down too many trees and erode a steep slope.

"I can understand that," said Owens. "I wouldn't like it if I lived here either."

Owens said that the site is difficult to build on, but he said that is what a developer must confront on the few remaining sites left in sought-after neighborhoods such as Gladwyne.

To comply with township zoning codes and state environmental laws protecting the stream and its flood plain, Owens knew he would have to build a bridge over the tributary of Mill Creek, which is about six-feet wide where the bridge is being erected.

COST ESTIMATES

He asked engineer Jastrzebski for some cost estimates.

"It was a good thing I was sitting down when he called," said Owens.

But Owens had already committed to buying the property.

"At that point," Owens said, "it was go, no matter what."

He was consoled by his accountant and his realtor, Elaine Kauffman of Fox & Lazo in Haverford, who told him: "You can't overimprove in Gladwyne."

"I think the bridge will appeal to people," Kauffman said. "It's something different, something special."

Before construction began on the bridge, Owens' crews had to build a culvert and a 200-foot temporary roadbed covered with 500 tons of stone, so the heavy equipment necessary to build the bridge could come onto the site.

Concrete footings were laid, and atop them, 8-by-22-foot abutments were cast in concrete.

Then, on May 18, a crane lifted the four, pre-cast reinforced beams onto the piers. The 35-ton beams, which are hollow in the middle, are 48 inches wide and 70 feet long.

The bridge will also have 12-foot concrete retaining walls on each side of the abutments, and parapets nearly three feet tall along the sides of the bridge. The bridge will also carry the house's utility lines.

The deck will be smoothed with blacktop and landscaping will help it blend into its setting. Owens expects construction on the house to begin this month and last for five months.

Owens, 47, worked as a photographer for the Philadelphia Bulletin for 18 years. When the newspaper folded in 1982, he set out to become a chef.

"I started to turn into a walking dirigible," he said. "So I had to do something else."

He turned to his hobby, building homes, which he had done in his off-hours at the Bulletin. He has now built more than a dozen homes along the Main Line and is planning to build on a site he owns in Chester Springs.

But for now, his focus is on making it across the 70-foot bridge, which for Owens has become a bridge too far.

"I hope never to have to do anything like this again," said Owens.

As for the name, "We'll leave that up to the people - whoever they are - who are rich enough to afford it."

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