Opened in 1927, this is likely Florida’s most scenic and historic bridge.
With much celebration, construction began on the Bridge of Lions in 1925. It reportedly cost ten times more than similar bridges built in the area – primarily because of its artistic elements. It was a project designed in the early 1920s, the era of the Florida Land Boom, when speculation in Florida properties was at a fevered pitch.
The bridge was created to replace the wooden bridge that had been built in 1895. That bridge was a simple structure (which can be seen in the second picture below) that connected Anastasia Island to the mainland. It had many problems and there were calls for it to be replaced. Owing to St. Augustine being one of the premiere Florida resorts for the wealthy, a bridge that was both functional and artistically significant would be expected.
This is when Henry Rodenbaugh enters the story. Rodenbaugh was the vice president and bridge expert for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. He oversaw the funding and construction of the bridge that was designed by engineer J.E. Greiner. Greiner was the founder of the J. E. Greiner Company in Baltimore, MD, an engineering company that went on to design many significant bridges in the US.
Yes, Henry Flagler, the builder of St. Augustine’s Hotel Ponce de Leon, Alcazar Hotel, Flagler Memorial Church and Grace United Methodist Church was indirectly responsible for the construction of the Bridge of Lions some 12 years after his death.
While the grand bridge was appropriate for the St. Augustine of 1925, by the time it was completed in 1927, the Land Boom had gone bust and the country was rapidly moving towards the Great Depression. St. Augustine is lucky the construction happened when it did.
The Bridge of Lions is a moveable bridge (or drawbridge in common American English usage) with a bascule double-leaf design. Its western end is at the Ponce de León Circle and the Plaza de la Constitución. It’s named for the two “Medici Lions” that guard the bridge at the west end.
The lions are replicas of those in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy. One of the pair of lions in Florence dates back to the second century C.E. while the other is a copy created in the 16th century. The two Florentine lions are known as Medici Lions because they once graced the Villa Medici in Rome. Both the original lions and the ones in St. Augustine are carved in marble. The lions were the gift of Dr. Andrew Anderson, who contributed several works of art throughout St. Augustine. They were made in Florence at the Romanelli Studios.
While St. Augustine has a strong tie to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, it appears that the Bridge of Lions is named for Roman lions.
The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
By the 1990s, the bridge was considered to be in rather poor shape. Discussions would finally end in a major restoration that eventually cost $80 million. The Jacksonville engineering firm Reynolds, Smith and Hills was awarded the project. The bridge was closed between 2006 and 2010, with a temporary bridge placed next to it. The renovation was completed in 2011 when the Medici lions were replaced.
In 2015, two more Medici Lions arrived at the bridge – this time guarding the eastern entrance. Located in a small park in line with the bridge, they were a gift to the city by Miki and Wolfgang Schau. The park also has a history marker that tells the story of Davis Shores, one of the many housing developments that failed when Florida’s Land Boom went bust.
St. Augustine’s Bridge of Lions is one of the city’s many unique landmarks. It can be seen from the the Castillo de San Marcos and the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios as well as from the top of the St. Augustine Light. It connects the historic old city with the Island that has been so important in St. Augustine’s development. Anastasia Island is where the coquina stone was quarried for the earliest buildings, including the Castillo.