Camino Real Bridge here to stay
If the drawbridge in Boca Raton were any other bridge, it probably would be demolished by now, replaced by a shiny, new, modern span.
But the Camino Real Bridge — also known as the Boca Club Bridge and the Clarence H. Geist Memorial Bridge — is not just any bridge. It’s historic, among the oldest in Palm Beach County.
But its age, along with its deteriorating condition, was working against its survival. Built in 1939, the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway next to the Boca Raton Resort & Club is 72 years old, and Palm Beach County engineers were planning to replace it as it neared its 75-year life span.
That’s until they found out that the
Camino Real Bridge is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, the county instead is planning to spend more than $6 million for major rehabilitation in 2013.
“We had no idea there was anything historical on it,” said Omelio Fernandez, county roadway production director. “We had a number of things we were looking at. With its age and the cycle of repairs that would be required, we looked at replacing it in the next few years.”
A listing on the county Registry of Historic Places should have been a hint.
Back in 1997, the Boca Raton Historical Society asked the county’s Historic Preservation Review Board to put it on the county registry and to create a Camino Real Historic District, from Dixie Highway to State Road A1A.
The area is a cornerstone of Boca Raton’s development. As part of his development plans for Boca Raton, architect Addison Mizner envisioned a grand boulevard, Camino Real, as a centerpiece of the city. He also envisioned an elaborate Venetian bridge over the Intracoastal.
But Mizner’s company went bankrupt before realizing his plans.
Geist, a developer, took over as leading developer of Boca Raton. Geist completed the road and put in a temporary swing bridge. In 1938, shortly after he died, construction began on a permanent bridge by the federal Public Works Administration. Completed in 1939, the bridge was named after Geist.
“It has some significance,” said Mary Csar, executive director of the Boca Raton Historical Society. “It’s such a pretty bridge. It’s such a nice thing to have.”
Still, that didn’t prevent it from making the county’s list of bridges that should be replaced.
The Camino Real Bridge is in very poor shape. Its deteriorating condition led the county to lower its maximum allowable weight from 36 tons to 30 tons.
A $1.7 million minor renovation in 2007 did nothing to substantially improve the structure.
By federal highway standards, the bridge, which has been classified as structurally deficient, is a prime candidate for replacement. By comparison, the Southern Boulevard bridge in West Palm Beach has higher ratings than Camino Real, and the state is replacing that bridge in 2015.
But history has saved the Camino Real.
As part of an engineering study to determine what to do with the bridge, a cultural survey was done of the area.
The survey found the Camino Real district was a potential candidate for the National Register, based on its association with Florida’s land-boom development in the 1920s and its association with Mizner and Geist.
It also found the Boca Club Bridge, while part of the district, could be a candidate on its own for the National Register.
It stands out because it’s a rare piece of bridge engineering. The Camino Real Bridge is a double-leaf, rolling lift bridge. The superstructure lifts up and rolls away from the channel as the bridge opens, allowing the whole width of the channel to be clear.
Only nine such bridges are left in Florida, and six are historical. One is the Flagler Bridge in West Palm Beach, built in 1938. The state is replacing it now.
The cultural survey done on Camino Real was sent to the Florida Division of Historical Resources, and a review there ruled that the bridge and the Camino Real district were officially eligible to be listed on the National Register.
The state’s historic preservation officer said replacing the bridge was pretty much out of the question.
“If we want to replace it, then we must show there’s no potential to rehabilitate it,” Fernandez said. “It has to be a public hazard.”
While replacing a bridge is more expensive than rehabilitation, continued maintenance and repairs to and old bridge over time could eat up those shortterm savings.
Typically, the county does a cost comparison to determine the best option. In this case, that was pointless since the bridge can’t be replaced.
The county is determining how much repair the bridge needs, and is work- ing closely with the state Historic Preservation Office.
“We’re thinking [the repairs] will give it 10 years before we have to rehabilitate it again,” Fernandez said.
The county is planning to spend more than $6 million for major rehabilitation of the historic Camino Real Bridge in Boca Raton.