The Welcoming Bridge

Converting an Eyesore to Eye Candy



The Challenge: Turning an old, ugly overpass on Highway 933 between Notre Dame and

Downtown South Bend into a welcoming display of art.

The Solution: Bring the problem to Christopher Stackowicz of Stackowicz Studios in Granger.

Chris was the man for the job. Originally from the north side of Chicago, he is a Penn High School graduate and holds four university degrees: a Bachelor of Fine Arts in printmaking and painting, and one in art history focusing on ancient art from the University of Notre Dame, followed by an MFA in installation art (large public art) and a graduate certificate (an MFA without thesis) in cultural studies from Stony Brook University New York (SUNY) University in Queens, New York.  Chris also spent a summer in Greece doing field documentation by photographing ancient buildings and has also chaired the art department for eight years at Bethel College. His projects included a giant chessboard, a ceiling fresco at Queen of Peace Catholic Church and a mural at the University Park Mall.

Getting Started

“I was approached in April 2013 by a gentleman from Union Station Technologies who had been working with Memorial Hospital and other business leaders for projects that can beautify South Bend and rally its citizens into re-creating the city,” Chris recalls. “The 933 bridge was seen as significant as to how bad the city was.”

Indeed, it was bad. The bridge, a railroad overpass that hadn’t been used by trains in years, was rusty, covered in poison ivy and supported a sign advertising the now-defunct South Bend Football Hall of Fame. The overpass is now part of the bike/pedestrian path that connects Niles to Mishawaka. “Except for the poison ivy, it’s pretty there,” Chris jokes.

The approach was to present a colorful, playful entrance/exit to and from the city rather than a straight-line corporate image. It was to convey a vast departure from the “ugh-I-have-to-go-downtown” or “thank-goodness-I’m leaving-downtown” image that the rusted, cracked structure psychologically presented. Everything was to be hand painted and no stenciling was to be used for lettering.

One of the first things Chris had to do was form a corporation because of liabilities, insurances, permissions and requirements needed for the project, so cstackstudios, LLC, was born. The full-time staff consists only of Chris and his wife, artist Samantha Stackowicz, who also worked on the bridge project. “I never thought I would be a business owner,” Chris says. Artists are hired according to the project and are located through a database and artists’ organizations. 

Chris came up with the design himself, pointing out that nearly all the images, such as the columns, are actual locatable features of the city. An exception is the comet high up on the corner of the east side. Chuck Bueter, president of the Michiana Astronomical Society, perched on the crane to direct Chris how to paint the image. Another addition to the plan was extra flowers on pinwheels as part of the Memorial Children’s Hospital contribution (check this). “We taught young kids how to paint them,” Chris recalls, “and they had a lot of fun.”

Big Projects Present Problems

The first obstacle was getting rid of the poison ivy, which attacked all the volunteers on this part of the project. Research on the 87-year-old concrete also was done, but “we could do only so much with it,” Chris recalls. “The concrete is in pretty bad shape.”

Priming began on June 4th of last year with cracks filled in and walls painted white. Everything—paint, brushes, scaffolding and so forth—was donated. Chris and his staff of volunteers especially appreciated the crane and the scissor lift. “If we needed something, we contacted vendors,” he says. Memorial Hospital, just south of the bridge, was a major contributor and Chris and Samantha also put in some of their own money. The City of South Bend allowed them to be on its insurance plan, which they didn’t need. There were no injuries during the three-month, ten-day project.

The biggest challenge was the day-to-day logistics. Chris had to plan every single day: what part of the mural was to be painted, coordinate with the volunteers (some just simply showed up), packing up the paint, taking two hours each day to clean the brushes. As there were 963 volunteers from 11 different schools, Realtors, Goodwill Industries, the Kroc Center, the Homeless Shelter and those from businesses such as Home Depot and Whole Foods—just to name some—it’s easy to see how difficult this was. Adding to the coordination effort was getting consistency among nine professional artists of different skill levels who were used to their own methods of creating.

Then Chris had to deal with lane closures, which occurred on July 15th and were set by the city. On Notre Dame home game weekends all lanes had to be open to accommodate traffic, which meant taking down scaffolding, storing equipment on Wednesdays before the game, closing up the project for four days. These closures, along with 22 rain days, delayed completion from sometime in October to November 6th.

Also there was noise from the traffic going through the underpass, deafening enough to often require earplugs. Artists working next to each other could talk, those farther away text messaged. Auto fumes? “We couldn’t control that,” Chris admits.

Graffiti added another problem, which was painted over. A special sealant keeps out the graffiti. A small portion of the wall showcases signatures of the artists. The mural was signed off on November 6th, with Mayor Pete Buttigieg cutting the ribbon on November 9.

Yet another challenge popped up: salt. Calcification of the old bridge had salt oozing from under the surface, breaking the paint. “We weren’t expecting this,” Chris laments. “We put a sealant on this and used a special exterior paint for masonry.” He expects the mural, called the 933 Bridge, will last 20 years but he hopes for 30.

The response for the 933 Bridge was, Chris figures, 98 percent positive with many “warm and fuzzy” comments.

What’s Next

The studio is planning a Spring Forward during one weekend, March 7th through the 9th, part of the city’s beautification program. Based on a similar program in Cincinnati, the project aims to stabilize sources of light within a number of neighborhoods throughout the city, involving privately owned houses that can’t yet be rehabilitated or torn down. Presently these houses are secured by plywood and look awful. “There are hundreds of these buildings,” Samantha observes. Until these houses can be finally dealt with, the effort is to install primed and painted plywood on the exteriors of these homes. Artists create faux windows, doors and interior scenes with paint to project a colorful, upbeat image with the intention of dropping incidences of graffiti and crime, and encouraging improved business and investment. Again, Spring Forward will involve sponsors, professional artists and volunteers.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/springforwardsb. To volunteer for Spring Forward, contact http://www.volunteerspot.com/group/967189688023 .