Modesto could continue to boast a lion bridge after the old one is demolished.
Dave Leamon, deputy public works director for Stanislaus County, said there’s no money in the budget for purchasing art or putting artwork on the new structure that will replace the 101-year-old Seventh Street Bridge over the Tuolumne River. The bridge is known as the Lion Bridge because of the eye-catching concrete lions at each end.
Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved a recommendation to demolish the old bridge and replace it with a functional span for cars and trucks in the same alignment. Local agencies are relying on public funds from the state Department of Transportation.
Leamon said that relocating the concrete lions to the new bridge would not be pleasing to the eye. But private contributions could be raised to hire Oakdale sculptor Betty Saletta to create four bronze lions for placement at each end of the new bridge. Saletta has said she could produce the lions for a total of $240,000.
Saletta has sculpted many public art works in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, including the Chief Estanislao and American Graffiti statues in Modesto.
Saletta attended the public meetings on the Seventh Street Bridge replacement and submitted an estimate to the county for life-size lion sculptures to enhance the aesthetics of the new bridge.
No one is suggesting the new modern span featuring bronze lions will match the style of the historic one.
“The lions I can create would probably outlast the bridge,” Saletta said, estimating their lifespan at 500 years. “They are digging up bronze that is a couple thousand years old.”
City and county leaders chose the lowest-cost alternative in approving a structure to replace the Beaux Arts-style landmark that dates to 1916. The old bridge is not structurally sound and is too weak for truck traffic.
Some residents urged local officials to retrofit the historic bridge or preserve it for bicycles or pedestrians, while building a new crossing in another location for cars and trucks.
Leamon said the state will pay for saving the four concrete lions before the old bridge is torn down in 2020. A plan calls for moving two lions and other historic features of the Seventh Street Bridge to a pedestrian plaza with an interpretive center.
The plaza will be 50 to 75 yards west of the current bridge alignment. Leamon could talk with the Modesto Culture Commission to find a good home for the other two concrete lions.
Leamon said the county is not commissioning a work of art for the new bridge. If a private fundraising effort got off the ground, the group would work with Saletta and the bronze lions would be donated for the bridge.
Saletta said part of the $240,000 could be raised by making small replicas of the bronze lions she creates, which would be sold to donors. She has made smaller versions of the Graffiti statue, the Paper Boy in McClatchy Square in downtown Modesto and other works.
Saletta said she would need $80,000 in funds to get started on the bronze lions.
The sculptor has not talked with any groups about a fundraising drive. At some point, county staff members will need to get approval from the Board of Supervisors and City Council.
County Supervisor Terry Withrow said Thursday it’s OK with him if private donors or a community group wants to run with the idea.
“I will need to start soon to deliver the lions when the bridge is finished,” Saletta said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16