When planners at the California Department of Transportation decided they wanted a distinctive bridge to carry light-rail trains across a major Los Angeles freeway, they picked the right designer in Minnesota's Andrew Leicester.

Chosen in May from a raft of applicants, Leicester proposed a peacock theme for the $22 million new bridge. Why? Because peacocks are the emblem of the city of Arcadia, where the bridge will be located.

"They're extremely committed to making this an iconic freeway crossing," Leicester said recently. "Iconic, that is, within the confines of what a freeway bridge can be."

Details of the bridge's design are still being worked out by Transportation Department engineers, but most likely it will consist of a huge span that straddles the freeway and is supported by two giant columns, one on each side of the highway.

Leicester proposed to extend the support columns above the bridge's deck, disguising them to look like the necks of peacocks. The birds' showy plumage could be suggested by a decorative railing or screen lit with LEDs or by lighting in a cable-support matrix. Solar panels could be used as plumage, and beaks made of wind turbines might animate the heads. Electricity generated by the turbines could be used to power the lighting.

"All this has to be worked out, go through committees and be approved by representatives of every station along the line," Leicester said. "I warned them about death-by-committee, and they all solemnly nodded."

From pigs to peacocks

The British-born artist's 30-year career is sparked with memorable work, most notably four "flying pig" sculptures atop columns in Cincinnati's Gateway park that he designed in 1988. Commemorating Cincinnati's bicentennial, that project is chock-a-block with allusions to the city's history of devastating floods, serpentine Indian mounds and 19th-century fame as the world's premiere pork-producer.

Other Leicester projects include a 30-foot-long ceramic mural for a renovation of Penn Station in New York City, a water garden and arcade in downtown Los Angeles, and a plaza and colonnade in Charlotte, N.C.

In the Twin Cities, he has incorporated profiles of Minnesotans into columns on the plaza outside the History Center in St. Paul, fabricated a 35-foot-tall robot sculpture for the University of Minnesota's campus and designed the ornamental brick arches that curve across the light-rail plaza at the Metrodome in an echo of the historic Stone Arch bridge nearby.

Peacocks are well established in the history of Arcadia, where the bridge will span Interstate 210 about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Peafowl arrived in the area from India in the 1880s, imported by one Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin to grace the grounds of his Rancho Santa Anita. The birds quickly adapted to the semi-desert climate and went native.

When Baldwin's home site was incorporated into the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden at its founding in 1947, the peafowl became stars. The Arboretum has a Peacock Cafe and the city took the bird as its emblem, using it on everything from stationery to firefighter's badges.

Leicester even discovered that Arcadia's sister city, Newcastle, Australia, is located near the Watagan Mountains, home to an albino bird, the Snow Peacock. Hence, he proposed that one of the bridge pylons represent the colorful Indian/American bird and the other its albino cousin.

California's recent budget woes won't derail the project, he said. Its funding was approved in a recent referendum to extend the Metro Gold rail line, which now runs from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena.

Leicester will be paid a $20,000 design fee and an additional $30,000 for work during the construction phase. Final designs are due Jan. 1 with construction scheduled to begin in June.

Of course, as in all public art projects, details may change under the scrutiny of bureaucrats and the public. If the peacocks don't fly, he may substitute the king snake, the yellow toad, coyotes or other indigenous critters that live in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, he joked recently.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431