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Exhibit takes loving look at bridge that unites two states

The new Memorial Bridge is expected to open to traffic later this month.

Jim Wilson/Globe Staff

The new Memorial Bridge is expected to open to traffic later this month.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Before the new Memorial Bridge even opens to traffic, it is already a star.

The span that will reconnect Portsmouth with Kittery, Maine, is the focus of “Bridging the Piscataqua: Construction and Community,” a major exhibit at the Discover Portsmouth Center, running through Oct. 15.

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New and historic photos, design displays, and a collection of sometimes stunning artworks locate the new bridge and its predecessor at the center of this port city’s identity.

“People have such a passionate attachment to the bridge,” said the Portsmouth Historical Society’s executive director, Maryellen Burke. “So many people feel like we are one community, Kittery and Portsmouth. With the [old] bridge’s demise being so shocking and traumatic, it really put a hole in people’s hearts. And now, energy around this new bridge is really high.”

The old Memorial Bridge over the Piscataqua River was closed to motor vehicles in July 2011 because of safety concerns resulting from its deterioration. It continued to be used by pedestrians and bicyclists until January 2012, after which it was dismantled.

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There is no exact date for the opening of the new bridge, but extensive testing and staff training is underway with an expectation that traffic will start flowing sometime later this month, according to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

The exhibit makes clear the engineering ingenuity involved in the Theodore Zoli III design of the new $81 million lift bridge, with its durable gussetless design and cold-bent steel, as well as a metalized zinc coating instead of paint. While paying homage to the old design, the new bridge, built by Archer Western Contractors, will be efficient both in operation and long-term maintenance.

“This was a true landmark for people on both sides of the river,” said exhibit curator Richard Candee, a Boston University emeritus professor of American and New England studies. “It is the image of the span between Maine and New Hampshire that most people carry in their heads.”

Candee, a York, Maine, resident, is president of the Portsmouth society and an energetic exponent of Portsmouth stories. The exhibit has been in the works for a year.

“This innovation needed unpacking in many ways,” he said.

The new bridge replaces designer J.A.L. Waddell’s $1.5-million 1923 vertical lift Memorial Bridge, which honored World War I veterans and provided direct access to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

“Ever since the first bridge spanned the river from New Hampshire to Maine, there’s been a deep and important connection between Kittery and Portsmouth, especially since the ongoing controversy about which state the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is in,” said Candee. “But a large percentage of workers have always been from Portsmouth, so getting [them] to work was one major reason for building the first bridge.”

The Beaux Arts memorial at the Portsmouth entrance to the bridge is being restored and will be included as part of the new bridge.

“Some people didn’t really care too much about the old bridge, but couldn’t conceive of having a new one that didn’t put the memorial tablet back on,” said Candee.

The exhibit also covers the two spans just upstream — the 1940 Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, named after a woman who worked her entire career for the New Hampshire and Maine Interstate Bridge Authority, and the high-arching 1972 bridge that carries Interstate 95 across the river — as well as earlier bridges. Each one was a wonder of its time and pushed the bounds of design and engineering, said Candee.

For many, though, the real stunners here will be the artworks — photos, paintings, prints, and more — many in an upstairs display, titled “The Bridges of Portsmouth,” that is curated by Wendy Clement of the local Kennedy Gallery.

The exhibit includes Robert Muchmore’s 1960s murals from the defunct Starlite Lounge, Don Gorvette’s oversized contemporary woodcuts, and Bill Paarlberg’s funny, campy “Monster Destroys the Bridge.” There are numerous works by contemporary artists for sale.

If not precisely journalistic, the exhibit is definitely up to date, with photos of a tanker ship crash with the Long Bridge just this spring, which forced a temporary closure. With the Memorial Bridge already out of service, the temporary closure forced drivers to use the I-95 span to cross the river and once again reminded them of the importance of the bridges.

Next up? The Long Bridge replacement project is due to begin in a couple of years.

“Bridging the Piscataqua: Construction and Community,” at the Discover Portsmouth Center, 10 Middle St., through Oct. 15. 603-436-8433, www.portsmouthhistory.org.Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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