First Look: Beacons of Light and Flight Elevate Wendy Park Bridge

Sculptural installation by Stephen Yusko and Stephen Manka at the new Wendy Park Bridge alludes to the beloved Guardians of Traffic. Photo by Erin O’Brien


Less than a mile from mountains of taconite pellets destined to become steel, and awash in the chorus of resident birds, the new public art on the Wendy Park Bridge reflects its creators’ deep understanding of the installation’s place in time and space.

The new Wendy Park Bridge traverses the busy Norfolk Southern railroad tracks just before they merge with the decking of Cuyahoga River Bridge #1, more commonly known as the Iron Curtain. To its south, the new span leads to the Willow Avenue Bridge, which stretches over the Old River Bed channel. While both of those working vertical lift bridges are ensconced in our industrial landscape, this new bridge, which will accommodate strollers and sneaker-clad feet, has something its two big brothers do not: public art designed especially for it.

In early spring of this year, the Metroparks contacted artists Stephen Manka and Stephen Yusko about a commission for the Wendy Park Bridge.

“This is a project you don’t say ‘no’ to,” says Yusko, whose skills as a metalsmith have earned him a host of solo exhibitions and accolades such as Ohio Art Council grants. “We’re just thrilled that we were asked to do this.”

“It hits a lot of highwater marks for me,” adds Manka, which is saying something considering his public art peppers the city’s landscape from his Shaker Cloud Monoliths at the intersection of Lee Road and Lomond Boulevard to the sweeping Tressel/Tresses installation in the main lobby of the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, with plenty of points in between and beyond.

Stephen Yusko (left) and Stephen Manka, flanked by new sculpture in stainless steel. Photo by Erin O’Brien

The duo immediately got to work on concept and offered up three designs. The legendary Hulett ore unloaders informed one; another nodded in part to the iconic Coast Guard station to the north. For the third, the Manka/Yusko team took subtle cues from what may be the most famous Clevelanders of all times, the Guardians of Traffic, which have held court over the Hope Memorial Bridge since it opened in 1932. Now, 89 years later, the highly anticipated Wendy Park Bridge also features four pylons with a local story all their own.

Weighing in at approximately 1,600 pounds each, the towers stand more than 13 feet high and are constructed from 3/8-inch thick stainless-steel panels that are solid at the base, but give way to Manka and Yusko’s precise designs courtesy of laser cutting. The result is gleaming burnished metal towers imbued with unmistakable delicacy.

The sculptures include programmable lights that will radiate from the cutouts. Photo by Stephen Yusko.

“There are loads of birds that either live down here or migrate through here,” says Yusko. To be sure, more than 200 species of birds have been recorded at Wendy Park, which is also famed for the annual fall Monarch butterfly migration. The depiction of birds, however, wasn’t enough; the southern pylons evoke a flock of birds moving together as a whole. “We were both fascinated with the idea of murmuration and how could we incorporate it into these towers,” adds Yusko, referencing the mesmerizing motion of a flock of starlings.

The northern pair transforms into a patch of flowers and clover, the latter being a gentle memorial to Wendy Park’s namesake, Wendy Moore. Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1967, Wendy died in 1997 after suffering a head injury during a skiing accident. She was 29. The Moore family subsequently launched the Wendy Park Foundation, which endeavored for decades to realize the park. In its concurrent quest to widen public access to the lakefront, the Foundation donated $3 million towards the Wendy Park Bridge project, the total cost for which was $6 million.

Manka and Yusko went into overdrive ahead of the looming deadline to bring what they’ve temporarily dubbed the Wendy Park Gateways to fruition.

“You’ve got one shot to do it. It can be lame or weak or thin or stupid—or something we struggle over for two months and kill ourselves on, which we ended up doing,” says Manka.

“This has taken every bit of energy that we’ve got,” adds Yusko.

The installation includes programmable LED lighting that will emanate from the cutouts and top of the towers as well as slots near the bridge’s decking. Two of the pylons will bear the phrase “Wendy’s Way.” The others will feature small lighted boxes that will contain, respectively, bird and floral sculptures for which Yusko is still working out the particulars.

Determining the size of the structures presented a challenge exclusive to this quirky section of Cleveland. They had to be scaled to people and the new 500-foot bridge, while also holding their own amid the nest of infrastructure that characterizes Whiskey Island and the Flats. Counterweights on the adjacent lift bridges weigh hundreds of tons. The 8,000-foot Main Avenue Bridge curves through the backdrop, while two defunct B&O jack-knife rail bridges, frozen in the up position, float above it all like curious steel dinosaurs.

“They are going to live in this environment that’s massive with monstrous stuff,” says Manka, “and these are going to feel small. But when you’re up against them, they will feel the right size,” he adds. “In relation to the bridge itself, I think we scaled it very nicely.” It is also plainly visible from the Shoreway, where the glowing pylons will add another lighting detail to the city’s after-dark experience.

The installation process. Photo by Stephen Yusko.

Yusko and Manka didn’t go it alone. On account of the size and weight of the units, they worked closely with Dennis and Randy Nader and Don Cordell at Precision Welding, located in Valley View. Alro Steel and Penn Stainless did the laser cutting. While the Metroparks were a partner on the project, the Wendy Park Gateway installation was completely funded by the Wendy Park Foundation.

“We are really pleased with the partnership of the Wendy Park Foundation and their funding of these elements,” said Metroparks Chief Planning and Design Officer Sean McDermott during a June 23 phone interview. Lincoln Electric also supported the effort by way of equipment donation.

The Wendy Park Gateways mark the second public Manka/Yusko collaboration along the city’s lakefront. They also teamed up to design, build, and install the gracious swings that sway along the promenade to the south of the Edgewater Beach House.

“They do fantastic, creative, and precise work that fits within the context but at the same time provides a really unique experience,” said McDermott of Manka’s and Yusko’s work. “We’re really happy about how [the new pylons] incorporate into the bridge.”

While the two men have combined their considerable talents to produce this highly visible public art installation, this effort will also have the unique privilege of being a permanent part of the city’s infrastructure, not unlike the stone Guardians that inspired their creators.

“We both realized the magnitude of this project,” says Yusko. “I don’t think it gets better than this.”

Manka and Yusko will have the northern pylons installed for the June 24 Wendy Park Bridge ribbon cutting. The installation of the two southern towers and contents of the sculpture boxes will follow over the next two or three weeks.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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