Of Poetry and Bridges
Lisa Gray on design and the Thoreau Footbridge
In speaking with architect Lisa Gray recently about her life and work in and around Washington, you might expect to hear stories of buildings, but instead, she speaks of people. She and her husband Alan are partners in the New Haven based firm Gray Organschi Architecture. As a husband and wife team, their lives are defined by collaboration. She and Alan have travelled and worked as a team since meeting in graduate school at Yale in the 1980s.
Born and bred in Connecticut, Alan grew up in Litchfield, and Lisa in Darien. Their first projects were for friends and relatives in Litchfield County. They soon opened an office in New Haven where they are now principles to a 12-person, award-winning firm. Their projects reduce energy consumption and maximize the use of renewable materials by employing innovative environmental technologies and low impact building practices.
Current projects include working on a home for two artists in Kyoto, Japan, and an environmental Charter high school in New Haven where they were challenged to weave a new building and its exterior into the existing landscape of farm buildings, agricultural fields, and forests. However, they also find time for small, local projects and have partnered with several non-profits in Washington alone. They’ve been designing an extension to the Washington Art Association building in collaboration with local architect and WAA Chairman, Peter Talbot.
Similarly, Gray Organschi has worked with the Steep Rock Association. Upon learning of The Department of Transportation’s plan to construct a chain-link, five-foot-high, six-foot-wide pedestrian bridge next to Bee Brook Road, Steep Rock hired Gray Organschi to work on an alternative. Together with visionary board member Edwin Matthews, they worked with the town and the DOT to fund and design a bridge that wouldn’t be a blight on the landscape. Lisa says, “The town was able to use state funds earmarked for the chain link bridge, and Edwin brought the Gould foundation on board, resulting in what I regard as a gift to the town of Washington.”
The 134-foot long Henry David Thoreau Footbridge was completed in September of 2015. It is just visible from Bee Brook Road, offering drivers glimpses — but it has to be walked upon to be experienced.
This beautiful cable-stay suspension bridge has become a well-loved landmark for locals and visitors of all ages. Asymmetrically spanning the river banks, with a diagonal mast on the North Side, and anchors disappearing into the cliff on the south side, it is made of steel and environmentally engineered southern yellow pine timbers, providing a handicap accessible path across the river. Rising high over the 500-year flood level, it drops down into an elegantly curving ramp on the North side. The result is a footbridge that disrupts its surroundings as minimally as possible, while providing “a comfortable conduit for disabled and able-bodied alike.”
Visitors to the bridge will delight in the beauty of both the natural surroundings and the bridge itself, which offers an experience to its user. Quotes from America’s original environmentalist, Henry David Thoreau, are etched into the handrails and benches, keyed to particular vantage points:
“What a piece of wonder a river is, a huge volume of matter ceaselessly rolling through the fields and meadows of this substantial earth making haste from the high places, by stable dwellings of men and Egyptian pyramids, to its restless reservoir.”
And what a piece of wonder is human ingenuity, in the form of a perfectly fashioned bridge bending one knee with reverence to the grandeur of the natural world.
Elizabeth Gray is both founding principal and partner of the award-winning firm, Gray Organschi Architecture, and the founder and principal designer of Gray Design, an interior design and furnishings firm.