The Golden Gate Bridge: An Appreciation
The Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, is spanned by the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. My personal recollections date back to childhood, crossing the span in the car with my parents and being awestruck at the immensity of it. Later, I marveled at its beauty. And more recently, I developed an appreciation for its conceptual history and the construction challenges workers faced in building this engineering masterpiece. I often see it from innumerable vantage points in the city and throughout the Bay Area. It has become a symbol of San Francisco, much like The Statue of Liberty for New York or The Gateway Arch for St. Louis. But unlike those instantly recognizable landmarks, The Golden Gate Bridge functions as a vital transportation link, connecting the city with Marin County to the north. It is arguably the most photographed bridge in the world.
With construction costs reaching $35 million, (in 1930’s dollars) it was a daunting challenge to convince Bay Area counties to support bond issues of such magnitude, at a time when widespread unemployment existed and bread lines were everywhere. That era produced a very special generation of people who not only found a way to finance such a massive project during the Great Depression, but found a way to build what was once thought impossible, a bridge spanning The Golden Gate.
The person who spearheaded these efforts was Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss. I have great admiration for this man. He had designed and built a multitude of bridges throughout the United States by the time this chance of a lifetime came his way and it would be the crowning glory of his career. It was Joseph Strauss and his associates who decided on the single-span cable suspension idea for the bridge. It was Strauss, with his artistic sensibilities, who implemented an Art Deco motif for the design. (Art Deco, of course, being a popular architectural style that flourished in the 20’s and 30’s) Of greater importance, it was Strauss and his colleagues who had the awareness and sensitivity to ultimately save the historic Fort Point. Original plans for the bridge’s south cable anchorage called for the destruction of the fort. Indeed, it would have been far cheaper and easier to demolish Fort Point to make way for the bridge. However, to the eternal credit of Strauss, he incorporated a steel arch over the site to save the fort. He clearly understood the importance of preserving historical landmarks.
And it was Joseph Strauss and his staff who were instrumental in choosing a unique color for the bridge. Many competing demands between community leaders, the military, and the designers themselves led to torturous debates over safety and visibility concerns, as well as aesthetic considerations. Initially, it was argued that gray was the best solution, but with the frequent fog in the area, that idea was quickly vetoed. Local politicians wanted the bridge painted gold to reflect its name. The military insisted on a color scheme with a high degree of visibility in all weather conditions. The air force wanted orange and white stripes! The navy wanted yellow and black stripes! In the end, it was the inspired choice of international orange that won out. A color with high visibility in inclement weather to satisfy the air force and navy, a color that beautifully complements the nearby hills, and a color that contrasts nicely with the blues of the sky and water.
Built in just four years, The Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its opening on “Pedestrian Day” May 27, 1937, when tens of thousands walked on the bridge for the first time before opening to automobile traffic the following day. I remember the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1987 when nearly a quarter of a million people walked on the bridge. For me, it is an aesthetically pleasing structure. It is justifiably loved and admired the world over. So much so that I’m reminded of the old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If this is true, then look no further than the 25 de Abril Bridge in the capitol of my parent’s homeland, Lisbon, Portugal. Spanning the Tagus River and connecting Lisbon with the municipality of Almada to the south, this bridge when it opened in 1966, was among the top five largest suspension bridges in the world, along with The Golden Gate Bridge. These two bridges have often been compared to each other because of their stature, their picturesque locations, their design style, and their identical color, international orange. In fact, the 25 de Abril Bridge also bears a strong stylistic resemblance to the other great bridge in San Francisco, The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. No coincidence that both were built by the same company, The American Bridge Company. I mention all of this because I recall my first family trip to Lisbon, Portugal as a teenager and I still remember my first exclamation when I first saw the 25 de Abril Bridge: “Hey, that’s another Golden Gate Bridge!” Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.