Arts & Leisure

Handcrafted bridges span the gaps downtown

Tahlia and her friend Westley were on a walk through the Marble Works property on Thursday when they found this whimsical bridge to play on. It was one of four bridges built on dry land in Middlebury that will be auctioned as a fundraiser for Town Hall Theater. A fifth bridge is also in the works.

Wandering around the Marble Works District, or other spots in downtown Middlebury, you may have noticed five whimsical bridges that are open for exploration. Go ahead and walk across. Put down your things and play awhile; crack a smile, have some fun.
The bridges are part of an outdoor architecture exhibit, dubbed “Bridge 20/20,” put on by Town Hall Theater (THT) as a fundraising event with a timely theme. “This project came together as a public art project that is inspired by Town Hall Theater’s tradition of public engagement and art auctions, such as our big chairs and painted pianos,” explained Lisa Mitchell, executive director of THT.
“The thought of bridges was born out of the idea that we have this bridge project happening downtown. We planned this before COVID-19 and our goal was to help drive downtown foot traffic. In the wake of COVID-19, it has allowed us to continue moving forward with community engagement.”
Like earlier THT public art projects, the five bridges will all be auctioned for people to have delivered to their home after the exhibit ends at the end of October — proceeds will benefit the theater. The bridges were generously donated by five area teams: Goosewing Timberworks and Smith & McClain; Vermont Integrated Architecture and Nop’s Metal Works; Silver Maple Construction; Salamander Construction; and TruexCullin. Each had their own reasons for participating, but all were eager to not only donate to THT and give something to the community, but also because this particular art project speaks specifically to the built environment.
“I often think of the craft of timber framing as a sort of bridge between the past and the future,” said Will Gusakov, owner of Goosewing Timbers, while reflecting on the inspiration behind the bridge he built with Oakley Smith and Kevin McClain, of Lincoln-based Smith & McClain. “The past, because timber frame structures have been built for centuries in Vermont, and the future, because I hope locally derived, durable and resilient shelter will be a larger part of our built environment in the near future, just as it was in the past.”
Gusakov said he named their bridge the “Back to the Future Bridge” to emphasize that in “transitioning toward a just and sustainable future, people can look toward the past for examples of viable solutions for the economy as well as vernacular architecture.” The “Back to the Future Bridge,” which can be found at the Marble Works in Riverside Park, is constructed from European larch, eastern white pine and black cherry. Smith & McClain added the floor, roof and interior bench.
Gusakov said that he can imagine the “Back to the Future Bridge” turning into a great playhouse or picnic pavilion in someone’s backyard. He is hopeful, however, that a supporter of Town Hall Theater will buy the bridge and leave it for the community to enjoy.
“It’s an honor to join with other local designers and builders to support the performing arts and the vibrant community space that is THT,” said Gusakov.
Ashar Nelson is one of the lead architects and co-founder of Middlebury-based Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA). He said when Via got Mitchell’s call asking if they’d participate, his firm didn’t hesitate. “THT is such a linchpin organization in the community, drawing people together and bridging our communities in so many ways, we knew immediately we’d want to be in. It’s a project about community support, but it’s also about having fun in these heavy times.”
VIA’s project is called “Bridge-ette,” which spans the rain garden in the Marble Works just outside the firm’s Marble Works office. Nelson said the bridge is designed with portals that look out on various landmarks in the town and represents a connection to all the reasons Middlebury was founded: the steeple of the Congregational Church, the waterfalls, Main Street and the business community, and the natural surrounding of the river and mountains around us.
Noting the challenging times THT is facing in light of the pandemic’s closure of many of its events, and of the struggles many downtown retailers are facing in light of COVID and the rail bridges tunnel project downtown, Nelson said art projects like this give the community something positive and fun to focus on, while looking forward to better times.
“We are confident that the Middlebury community will not only make it through this unprecedented time, but emerge stronger and more prepared for new challenges,” THT wrote in its recent newsletter. “So many examples of kindness, support and generosity bolster our hope for light at the end of the literal and figurative tunnel!”
The other three bridges are “Oona’s Bridge” built by Silver Maple Construction and sitting next to the Stone Mill Building, “Bridge to the Outdoors” by Salamander Construction and sitting in Storrs Park near Middlebury College’s Twilight Hall, and “Terra Caelum,” which is due to be built by TruexCullins on the town green.
THT LOOKS AHEAD
Town Hall Theater opened the Jackson Gallery on July 22, Wednesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., to exhibit the design inspirations and layouts presented by each firm. “It’s an opportunity to come and check out the inspiration and also pick up a map before you head out. Maps are also accessible at a number of downtown businesses,” Mitchell said.
Bridges 20/20 is supported by Neighbors Together, the Marble Works Partnership, Stone Mill and Middlebury UndergrounD. Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership, spoke for the citizens program Neighbors Together, which is the presenting sponsor of Bridges 20/20. “When the idea came to fruition, we felt like it was a complement to what Neighbors Together does — getting people downtown and together in a community space,” Duguay said.
Neighbors Together worked with Town Hall Theater to market the campaign and helped promote the structures with activities such as their hidden gems contest for kids. “It’s great to see kids running around and playing on the bridges and enjoying the downtown space, despite the ongoing construction,” she said. 
The bridges are all up for auction. The auction is going on now — though with proper social distancing. Each bridge has a sign with a number to text. The “Better United” website, accessible by texting the number on the signs, features each sculpture and its bidding activity. Winning bidders will be determined in October.
“We are incredibly fortunate that all the design build firms have donated the sculptures to us, so 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit Town Hall Theater and will help us get through this difficult time,” said Mitchell, noting the economic hardship the pandemic has caused THT and everyone in the performing arts community.
“In a normal year, Town Hall Theater brings more than 20,000 people through its doors, patrons who also frequent area restaurants and shops,” Mitchell said. “We are an important economic driver and bridge to the community, and an organization that has also been hit hard by the double challenge of COVID and construction. We are looking forward to the day when we can safely reopen. But for now we’re working to connect with our community online and live through exhibits like Bridges 20/2

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