E. J. Westen is just 7 – or 7½ as he insisted – but on Saturday the boy Waverly made town history in an unusual way.
He was among three local citizens lucky enough to be the first, out of a group of around 60 townspeople, to look through a one-of-a-kind stereoscope that has just been installed in South Riverside Park. .
The Visionary Sightseeing Binoculars, as the artwork is called, is a unique public artwork in its purpose and meaning.
It etches in time the iconic green bridge that bears witness to the history and growth of the city for generations.
It’s an immersive and interactive experience, as such art installations are rare. This one offers a connection to the past through four 3D images of the Southeast Third Street Green Bridge in Waverly.
The bridge is no more, as it was demolished last fall after serving as one of the main arteries connecting downtown since 1917.
What to do with the historic bridge and how to deal with its legacy had been the talk of the town and city council for about two decades.
When the fate of the bridge was finally settled by council with the decision to remove it, it fell to the seven-member Waverly Historic Preservation Commission to report on how the bridge was to be commemorated and celebrated.
That celebration culminated in a public event on Saturday, with a ceremony honoring the bridge and the unveiling of the stereoscope containing its legacy.
Strategically positioned in the park near the playground and near the shelter, in a place where for generations walkers, cyclists and children could admire the view of the bridge in the distance, the work of art is paired with two informative panels.
As part of the memorial installation, they tell the story of the bridge, its importance in the community and present a list of donors who have supported the project.
Eventually, a plaque identifying the artist, Rebecca Hackemann, professor of art and photography at Kansas State University and former professor at Wartburg, will be installed at the base of the stereoscope.
As guests arrived for the 10 a.m. ceremony, on a picture-perfect May morning, with the Cedar River shimmering in the background in quiet unison with nature, the stereoscope was covered with a red tablecloth, tied with a golden ribbon, contrasting with the white tablecloths covering the two signs.
After a brief ceremony in the shelter, with the thriving farmer’s market at the other end of the park, and the bike path teeming with pedaling enthusiasts, Waverly Mayor Adam Hoffman and Chair of the Commission of historic preservation, Karen Lehmann, joined forces to cut the ribbon at applause.
The 3-foot-long scissors used by the Waverly Chamber of Commerce to mark the start of a new venture cut the ribbon and the stereoscope was unveiled to the public.
It was then that the three lucky residents, whose names were drawn by the artist, had the chance to take a look at the binoculars.
Luckily, they were chamber executive director Travis Toliver, Waverly resident Catherine Orth, and EJ Westen, the kid who had come to the celebration with his family and friends.
Toliver graciously gave the boy the first look, and even supported him so he could reach the height of the binoculars.
Catherine Orth then walked around and, with the help of her husband, Marvin, lifted her wheelchair to view the exhibit.
Toliver then intervened. He turned the crank with his right hand to see the images, beaming, just like the child in front of him, and just like the inner child he is inside.
During the first moments of the celebration in the shelter, Don Meyer, the master of ceremonies, read a timeline of the construction of the Green Bridge.
Its first anecdote, borrowed from newspaper coverage in 1911, told the story of what was then a lightweight footbridge built by WM Brooks, a nearby resident, for his personal use. Brooks had posted signs warning of the danger of crossing the bridge as it had no handrails.
“But that didn’t stop two young girls from challenging the bridge,” Meyer told the audience. “The girls dove into the water and were carried downstream until they were rescued by Mr Brooks. Their names were Viola Luhring and Aldora Babcock.
The audience responded to the mention of the names with laughter, as descendants of the Luhrings and Babcocks are still in the area.
Prior to the inauguration, the Historic Preservation Commission awarded three families special certificates for renovating their homes in keeping with the tradition and style of the past.
Rod and Bonnie Drenkow, at 203 Sixth Street Northwest; Randy and Karen Neuendorf, at 321 First Street Southeast; and Marvin and Catherine Orth, at 315 Second Street Northwest, were honored for their dedication to history. (The Waverly Journals will publish detailed articles on the renovation and restorations these owners have invested in).
After the ribbon cutting, Hackemann, the artist, gave a lecture on the project, its inspiration and its realization. In the audience were Art Frick and his wife Aida, Wartburg history professor Terry Lindell and his colleague Ron Matthias, as well as city officials like Garret Riordan, director of recreation services, Isaac Pezley, administrator of the city zoning, and Brian Birgen, the council’s liaison to the preservation commission. Councilman Tim Kangas was also present.
During the first part of the program, the curators, Karen Lehmann, Don Meyer, Kris Brunkhorst, Darius Robinson, Glenn Fenneman and Mary Meyer, the local historian who designed the panels, were recognized. Commission Member Justin Jeffcoat-Shedtler was not present.
After the warm ceremony, the guests stayed to gaze through the binoculars, some to reconnect with their memories, others to experience the past for the first time.
Only one of the four images in the binoculars shows a person, who happens to be a member of the Ira Studevant family, one of the town’s first settlers. Sturdevant’s great-great-great-grandniece, Barb Lovejoy, and her husband, Gary, attended the ceremony.
Donations are still being accepted for the completion of the final phase of the memorial next year, which will include a bronze plaque mounted on a base constructed from materials salvaged from the bridge and fabricated by Go-Hawk Manufacturing at W-SR High. School.
One of the first to take a look at the images, Catherine Orth, said she enjoyed the experience of looking through the stereoscope.
“It was a look into the past,” she said. “It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was a historic sight. It was very well done. They were black and white and they looked like three-dimensional historical photographs.
Orth said it would be helpful to add a step in front of the stereoscope so children and short people can get a good view without straining.
“It would definitely be a nice addition,” she said.
Like many locals, she said she would miss the Green Bridge, but would be comforted by the fact that her story is immortalized in the stereoscope. Among the images is an aerial view of the bridge and one showing its depth.
Being etched in time is not the same as having the bridge in the city’s living landscape, but it does mean the span will be present in the obelisk of memory, historians say.
The stereoscope and panels are now part of Waverly’s present and will keep the history of the Green Bridge in the minds of those who would never see it in person.
It was fitting that EJ Westen, the 7-year-old, would be the first to peek through the binoculars.
He may not realize it now, but just like the story of the rebellious girls jumping off the bridge in 1911, the story of a boy seeing the 3D images for the first time in 2022 is now part of the local tradition.
EJ described in detail the aerial images he saw in the stereoscope.
“I walked past it sometimes,” he said of the now demolished bridge.