Rob Hardy: "Golden Gate"

August 31, 2010 10:16:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


The Golden Gate Bridge is on anyone''s list of the most beautiful bridges, and is one of the most spectacular of engineering and artistic achievements. Kevin Starr is a historian who has concentrated on California history, and is the perfect author to write an appreciation of the bridge. Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America''s Greatest Bridge (Bloomsbury Press) is not a formal history, although it takes in the history of the region and the development around the bay, the financial and political drives and pressures that formed the idea of the bridge and its physical construction, and the subsequent effect of the bridge on the people who use it or see it every day. 


The book could be a lot bigger, given its epic subject. It could also have a lot more pictures, since the bridge is inherently beautiful and has inspired plenty of photographers and filmmakers to focus on it. Starr''s book is as far as you can get from a coffee-table volume. Nonetheless, it is gracefully written by an author that is passionate about history and who is not the only one who feels drawn to the bridge as "a testimony to the creativity of mankind." 


After a quick lesson in geology, ice ages, and sediment formation, to show us how the San Francisco Bay came to be, Starr describes the discovery of the region by the Spanish. They sailed all over the West Coast, but didn''t quite sail enough within to find the bay until their first ship sailed into it in 1775. (It is fascinating to compare this time with what was going on back east during the same period.) 


The bay gradually became a greater conduit to traffic, but shipping exploded during the Gold Rush in 1849, as did San Francisco itself. But San Francisco was hemmed in on its peninsula of less than 50 square miles. There were vast headlands across the bay in Marin County, and good living spaces. 


It was obvious that a bridge would be useful, and one was first imagined in the 1850s, decades before, for instance, the Brooklyn Bridge was proposed. There were ferries to do the job well enough but then the car came along.50,000 commuters used the ferries on workdays, and on weekends those who had ferried across from the city to enjoy the northward woods had to wait for hours to float back home. 


Starr rightly spends many pages on a vital but undramatic part of the bridge''s story, its financing. Even a bridge that everyone knew would be helpful was a tough sell at the start of the Depression. The economy was too precarious for such a venture, said the Taxpayers'' Committee Against the Golden Gate Bridge. 


The ferry companies joined in and started up years of legal maneuvering to try to prevent actions like the sale of bonds for the bridge. Two months before an important public vote in November 1930, there was an influential Labor Day traffic jam when cars backed up for 15 miles waiting for the ferries.  


The financial savior of the bridge was Amadeo Peter Giannini, the founder of Bank of Italy, which became known as Bank of America. He had been a produce seller, but realized that banking had blessings to bestow upon the small businessman; he was disgusted that banks would not consider loans to working people. That was the niche he filled, a progressive reformer who thought deposits from workers could be used for the social and economic development of their city. The chief planner for the bridge thus approached him for finance, and Giannini wanted to know: How long was this bridge going to last? "Forever," came the answer, and the deal was struck. 


The chief planner was Joseph Strauss, whose first design for the bridge was a failure, "an upside down rat trap" someone called it, a structure that would have been the sort of eyesore the Sierra Club and others had warned would pollute a magical site. Strauss, as befits any man with big plans, had a powerful ego, but he was wise enough to accept criticisms of his design and come up with something new by admitting contributions from a team of designers, engineers, and architects. 


People make jokes about how badly design turns out when done by committees, but the teamwork succeeded at all levels for this project. The designing engineer was Charles Alton Ellis, who was a genius in mathematically analyzing stresses on structures."Mr. Strauss gave me some pencils," was the way he modestly described his commission, but he used them for twenty months to grind out equations and solutions with no help from a computer. 


The man most responsible for the look of the towers was John Eberson, an architect who had experience in designing theaters and movie palaces. He adopted the art deco styling that he had used in many of his buildings for the magnificent vertical structures. With help from a local architect, John Morrow, the bridge took on its distinctive look with accentuation of the stepped-back arches, chevron decoration on the horizontal cross bracings, and decorative wing-like brackets below the bracings.  


It is hard to imagine the bridge any color than its current red (actually, it is called "International Orange"), but that wasn''t the original choice. There were actually many choices; the bridge might have been all gray, or all black. The Navy thought that ships could best see a bridge that had yellow and black striping, while the Army Air Corps thought that red and white stripes would be more visible from the air. While the choices were being mulled over, primer was put on the bridge''s metal elements to protect it, orange primer that as people got used to it seemed like just the color to give warning contrast without any need for striping and the resultant fragmentation. 


The bridge is an engineering wonder, an artistic inspiration, and a triumph of civic planning and finance. It is also a handy tool for suicide, a subject covered in one of the later chapters here. Something close to 30 people a year use the bridge to end their lives, and it''s an efficient method. The very few who have survived report that on the way down, they felt regret that they had jumped; surely many others who succeeded had the same last thoughts. 


There have been proposals to erect suicide barriers, which in other structures have sometimes eliminated jumping completely; this bumps against the aesthetics of the bridge, whose fans say it just wouldn''t look the same.  


It''s a nice reminder of how seriously people take the appearance of a bridge that they consider in many ways "their" bridge, a structure that has been taken to heart in ways other architectural markers have not.Starr''s volume, showing how he and others appreciate the bridge in its multiple roles in engineering, transport, and artistry, is a loving tribute.

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]