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Interstate innovation

Nebraska project inaugurates a new building type — a highway-spanning museum

December 01, 2002 |

A former governor's quest for a memorial to commemorate the history and technological contributions of his state has culminated in the construction of the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, which spans Interstate 80 just east of Kearney, Neb.

The monument houses exhibits that trace the history of the area from 1850 to the present. It is located near the Platte River, which adjoins several trails that carried the pioneers on their westward trek.

The linear plan of the 308-ft.-long, 50-ft.-wide monument is a direct response to its unusual location, which also dictated an unusual construction approach: The structure had to be built beside the highway and lifted into position. That's because the Federal Highway Administration would not permit construction to proceed above active traffic lanes.

"As far as we can tell, it's a one of a kind, says Robert Fitzgerald, project designer with architect Urban Design Group/Inc., Denver, a firm that also has Disney resort projects in its portfolio.

Approaching the monument on the interstate, your eye is initially drawn to the bare steel arches that comprise the primary framing. With exposure to the elements, the steel will take on a deep reddish patina that will give the structure the appearance of having been constructed during the era of westward migration. Cladding, located inboard of the frame, consists of stainless steel panels that are electrolytically coated to provide six individual colors, including purple, red, yellow and gold hues. The panels also are dimpled, to diffuse the sunlight that strikes them. "We liked the tension between the two materials," says Peter Dominick, principal-in-charge with Urban Design Group. Wood and stone structures are located at each end of the span.

Visitors reach the exhibit area after riding a 40-ft.-long escalator to the monument's top level. As they move upward, a projected image above the escalator takes them on a virtual journey from the inside of a covered wagon to the Nebraska landscape. Exhibits are arranged in chronological order, and begin with a depiction of Fort Kearney, which was established in 1848 to provide a safe haven for pioneers following the Platte River road. The log construction of the monument's reception/gift shop area also suggests a frontier outpost.


The transition from the pioneer era to the age of high technology is suggested by the exterior of the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, which incorporates both log construction and stainless steel panels. A winged horse sculpture by sculptor Kent Bloomer, which symbolizes advancements in transportation and communication, rises from the roof.

Other exhibits re-create historical developments ranging from glimpses of abundant buffalo herds to the development of the interstate highway system. Exhibits covering more recent developments are located on the monument's lower level. The lifelike displays are the work of exhibition designer Chadbourne and Associates, Cambridge, Mass.

The monument fulfills the vision of ex-Governor Frank Morrison to honor both old and new in Nebraska (see accompanying story). But its Building Team ran into almost as many adversities as those faced by the brave pioneers it honors.

The project faced "a huge number of complex issues," says Urban Design Group's Dominick, beginning with the approval process, technical challenges, and cutbacks of the initial budget by nearly half.


Visitors begin their tour with an elevator ride to the monument’s second level. Images projected on the wall above the elevator take them on a virtual journey from a covered wagon.

In-place construction prohibited

Mark Nienhueser, area manager for Omaha-based contractor Kiewit Construction Co., says his company's first challenge was to establish a guaranteed maximum price prior to project funding and completion of the design. "We guaranteed the price and schedule based on very preliminary information," he says.

Kiewit had to revise its strategy after the FHA said it could not build above an operating highway. That mandate forced the firm to assemble the structure, exterior skin, and roof on falsework shoring beside the road. During an eight-hour period in August 1999, traffic was rerouted to allow the 1,500-ton assembly to be placed on hydraulically-controlled transport carts and raised 25 ft. into position.

The building cost $15.8 million to construct. An additional $10 million was spent for exhibits and the outfitting of ancillary space. The city of Kearney authorized a tax on motel charges to start the funding, and issued revenue bonds. A nonprofit corporation was formed to build and operate the memorial, which opened in June 2000.

Original plans called for the monument to have only one level. But when planners realized that the facility initially would not have its own I-80 interchange and could be accessed only from a frontage road, they decided to expand the bridge element by adding a second level that brings visitors back to their starting point.

The monument is located 2 miles from the nearest (westbound) exit and 10 miles from the nearest eastbound exit — hardly ideal for a place intended to be an impulse attraction. Monument officials hope the facility will have its own I-80 interchanges in three to five years.

Looking back, Urban Design Group's Fitzgerald readily expresses his excitement about working on such an unusual project. "There was no prototype, no building topology whatsoever," he recalls. "This is something I had never done before, and probably won't get to do again."

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