The Coastal Star

Boca Raton: New chapter in quirky history - 80-year-old Camino Real bridge set to close for year of repairs

The bridge crossing the Intracoastal at Camino Real will receive $8.9 million in repairs. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Ron Hayes

The bridge goes up. The bridge goes down.

The bridge goes up and the bridge goes down.

The bridge goes up — and come April 12, that bridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway on Camino Real is expected to stay up for a year or more while undergoing $8.9 million in renovations and repairs.

Like so many fabled antiques that reach the noble age of 80, it needs work.

This will be an inconvenience for the 7,600 drivers who cross the two-lane span every day, not to mention the unknown number of walkers, runners and bicyclists using its steel sidewalks. And it will be a surprise to those who haven’t heard the news.

John and Grace Lutringer walk across the Clarence H. Geist Memorial Bridge. They traverse the bridge daily for exercise

“What!” Grace Lutringer exclaimed one recent morning as she neared the east approach. “We had no idea!”

Lutringer and her husband, John, are walkers — brisk walkers, enthusiastic walkers — so the prospect of a detour north to the Palmetto Park Road bridge doesn’t faze them. Striking out from their 12th Street home each morning, they might hit the beach from Camino Real, or Palmetto Park, maybe even south across the Hillsboro Inlet bridge.

For them, the impending closure was a surprise, but the change will be no inconvenience.

“Well,” John Lutringer said with a shrug and a smile, “if you have to do it, you have to do it.”

They have to do it.

The Camino Real bridge is one of three in the county deemed “structurally deficient” by the state. The other two are the Southern Boulevard bridge between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach, and the U.S. 1 bridge in Jupiter.

For its $8.9 million the contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure South of Broward County, will widen both the fixed and bascule parts of the bridge, renovate and replace the fender system, install new mechanical equipment, reconstruct the approaches and sidewalks, and make minor drainage improvements.

And then they’ll move the bridge tender’s house from the south to north side at the east end.

What they can’t improve is the bridge’s long and curious history.

Its three names, for example.

Ask any local and you’ll no doubt hear it called “the Camino Real bridge.”

Pause to admire the large plaque at the east end of the north concrete rail and you’ll be told you’re about to cross the “Boca Raton Club Bridge.”

But take the time to crouch low and ponder one of two smaller, nearly hidden plaques at either end and you will learn that you are, in fact, about to traverse the “Clarence H. Geist Memorial Bridge.”

One plaque will tell you that the bridge was built in A.D. 1938-39 by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works and reveal the names of five county commissioners. But it won’t tell you who Clarence H. Geist was.

Clarence Geist (above), for whom the bridge was named, with his wife, Florence. Boca Raton Historical Society

Clarence Henry Geist (1866-1938) was the man who got lucky when Addison Mizner’s luck ran out. A former cattle rancher and railroad man from LaPorte County, Indiana, he made his money in real estate.

In 1924, he built La Claridad on the grounds of the Everglades Club, a Palm Beach mansion designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, the architect who also gave us Mar-a-Lago.

Two years later, when Addison Mizner’s development company went broke trying to build “the world’s most architecturally beautiful playground” in Boca Raton, Clarence H. Geist was the anonymous bidder who bought it all for $76,350.

The new owner ordered a big addition to Mizner’s 100-room Cloister Inn, and the 450-room Boca Raton Club was born. 

Geist had a swing bridge moved from Deerfield Beach and installed at Camino Real so when the club opened in December 1929, his guests could more easily reach the beach.

The bridge, which turned on a pivot and had a chain to stop it, was supposed to be temporary, but it outlived Clarence Geist, who died June 12, 1938.

Two months later, on Aug. 5, The Boca Raton Tattler reported that “work will soon start on the El Camino Real Bridge which crosses the intercoastal canal just south of the Boca Raton Club. This bridge will be what is commonly known as a jack knife bridge and will be a great help to the community.”

And the temporary bridge that Geist moved from Deerfield Beach moved north once again, to cross a canal on Southern Boulevard, near 20-mile Bend.

All was well until 1974, when the County Commission considered replacing the 36-year-old “creaking structure” with a new, four-lane span on Camino Real. 

Three years later, they were still considering.

“I don’t know if it will fly this year or not,” County Engineer Herbert F. Kahlert said at the time.

It didn’t. But talk of a new bridge went on, and on.

In 1984, the wooden deck was replaced with steel.

In 1988, the county spent $100,000 repairing gearboxes, and in 2007, the bridge was closed while $1.7 million in repairs were completed. The steel decking had rusted and it needed new sidewalks and railings. The bridge was repainted and the walls of the bridge tender’s house were replaced.

Finally, in 2012, county engineers were ready to fulfill the dream they had talked about for more than 30 years.

A new, $43 million bridge would be built!

But, not so fast.

In 1997, the Boca Raton Historical Society persuaded the commission to create the Camino Real Road and Bridge Historic District, including Camino Real from Dixie Highway to the east end of the Geist bridge. Legally, the bridge could be repaired, but not replaced.

And so here we are: $8.9 million in repairs and renovations, and 365 days — more or less — during which Bill Heller will not be able to jog back and forth with Henry and Lily, his two beautiful Hungarian vizsla pointers.

“If it’s going to result in a safer, better performing bridge, then it sounds like a positive thing,” Heller said. “The question is whether a year is too long a time, and that’s something I don’t know.”

The Camino Real Bridge.

The Boca Raton Club Bridge.

The Clarence H. Geist Memorial Bridge.

But it’s not only a bridge with three names and one of three “structurally deficient” bridges in the county. In 1973, it became the only county bridge allowed to open three times an hour instead of every 30 minutes.

Jim Corman knows this well.

Security guard Jim Corman makes sure cars at the bridge don’t block the entrance to the  Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

A security guard at Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, Corman mans the club entrance just west of the bridge approach along the traffic circle.

When he hears the Ding! Ding! Ding! that signals the bridge is about to open, Corman leaves the guard shack armed with a hand-held stop sign and stands in the road to make sure waiting cars don’t block the club entrance.

“It stays open from about five to seven minutes,” he estimated. “It opens when a boat wants to pass, so not so much during the week, but on weekends it’s pretty much three times every hour.”

If the weekend boat traffic is backed up, Corman said, the bridge might stay open for 15 minutes, then open again seven minutes later.

But it’s not really a hassle, he said cheerfully.

Asked if he’s looking forward to a year without having to stand in the road three times an hour, Corman had to think a bit.

“Well, I won’t have to get wet if it rains!” he said. 

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