Each day about 32,000 cars traveling along Ponce de Leon Avenue cross Lullwater Creek in Druid Hills. Except for concrete balustrades and metal handrails along the sidewalks, there are few hints that there is a historic bridge beneath the roadway.
“You really can’t tell it if you are driving in that area,” says Paul Liles, a bridge engineer with the Georgia Department of Transportation. “You just zip over the bridge and you really can’t tell at all. If you go down underneath it, it’s got all sorts of wooded area and I think very few people are aware.”
Hidden beneath the road deck and concealed by the thick woods along Lullwater Creek is a concrete arch bridge that rises 30 feet above the stream valley. The reinforced concrete arches form an arcade that in recent history has had few viewers except for the homeless who camp there and graffiti taggers.
According to GDOT historians, a bridge has carried Ponce de Leon Avenue over Lullwater Creek since the first decade of the twentieth century. Ponce de Leon was designed as a scenic parkway linking Druid Hills to downtown Atlanta. Originally conceived in the 1890s by pioneer landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the road and Druid Hills were completed after the turn of the twentieth century.
Ponce de Leon originally carried automobile traffic alongside electric trolley lines built by the Georgia Railway & Electric Co. Early maps of Druid Hills show the trolley lines and the roadway.
GDOT engineers and historians do not know who built the existing bridge in 1922. It didn’t become part of the state highway system until later in the twentieth century. When the bridge was built, Druid Hills was becoming home to Atlanta’s elite and the landscape that grew up around ordinary transportation infrastructure reflected.
The Lullwater Creek valley north and south of Ponce de Leon was slated to become parkland: Lullwater Park. A clubhouse was proposed on the north side of Ponce de Leon east of the creek and Shadyside Park was slated for the south side. Druid Hills and its roads were the pinnacle of the City Beautiful ideal with residential suburbs wrapped by scenic parks.
The bridge’s location, explains GDOT historian Sandy Lawrence, is why engineers added the arches to an otherwise ordinary concrete highway bridge that didn’t require arches to be structurally sound. “And the fact that they did that, it’s not structural at all,” said Lawrence. “It’s entirely just for aesthetics because it was beautiful and it’s in a beautiful setting.”
Engineer Liles agrees. “I just think somebody was just being fancy. You know, it’s in the Olmsted parks and everything else and it’s an old section of town and they didn’t have to do all of that.”
According to Liles, the bridge over Lullwater Creek is known as a T-beam bridge. “Those are concrete beams that have bar reinforcement in them and we have literally hundreds of them,” he explained. “They’re everywhere.”
Historians studying the bridge for GDOT have observed that the bridge is virtually unaltered and they consider it to be an important part of the Druid Hills Historic District, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. GDOT is studying the bridge in advance of roadwork that could impact the historic structure.
As a GDOT architectural historian, Sandy Lawrence works on historic bridges throughout the state. Lawrence's job gives her insights into the secrets hidden beneath Ponce de Leon Avenue’s pavement: “I think what’s so cool about this one is that if you are driving over it, you wouldn’t know how special it is because it’s not really that much to look at from the road.”