The Color, Romance, and Impact of the Golden Gate at 75

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Everything you've always wanted to know about the Golden Gate Bridge but never had an eminent scholar around to ask.

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Library of Congress.

The Golden Gate Bridge -- one of the world's most celebrated and instantly recognizable icons -- turns 75 today. Tonight the bridge will be closed for a fireworks display signaling the climax of a remarkable yearlong extravaganza of events, exhibitions, and media coverage marking the anniversary of the spanning of the Golden Gate.

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic, has been writing about the significance of the bridge as infrastructure, symbol, and inspiration for a bold spirit of improvement that is almost impossible to replicate today, when California's bid for a high-speed rail link is under attack from all quarters. This weekend he spoke at the California Historical Society, which painted its headquarters international orange, the color of the bridge, for the occasion of an exhibit that runs through October and publication of a free interactive e-book entitled "A Wild Flight of the Imagination: The Story of the Golden Gate Bridge." Anthea Hartig, the society's executive director, joined King in a conversation about the Golden Gate Bridge with me.

Jon Christensen: The Golden Gate is now indelibly defined by this beautiful bridge. But why did the Golden Gate need a bridge in the first place?

John King: Part of it was very basic. The automobile was picking up popularity, and by all accounts you had two-to-three-hour waits to get across the gate on a Sunday night by car ferry. Beyond that was the business, cultural, and even manifest destiny of the dream of opening up the Redwood Empire, north of the city, and connecting everything from Buenos Aires to the Arctic, through San Francisco.

Anthea Hartig: The romance of the new automobiles came into play. But I also think it was the power of the idea to span this majestic, complicated narrow strait. There was something very contagious in that, especially in the Progressive Era. Man could fix things and make the world better in the aftermath of the horrors of World War I. These progressive ideas were very powerful in California.

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The Golden Gate at sunset. Before the bridge, obviously. (Online Archive of California).

Jon Christensen: Some people argued that the Golden Gate didn't need a bridge. Do you have any sympathy for their arguments?

Hartig: I do. Seeing Ansel Adams' photographs and the beauty of the gate before the bridge, I can see that. It was one of California's natural glories. Do you, John?

King: Not really. Call me old-fashioned, but the notion that a place should be frozen in time and be the same as when you first encountered it is quite romantic but not necessarily a way to build a region. There's a certain glory and accomplishment in the bridge.

Christensen: What's your own personal favorite Golden Gate Bridge story?

Hartig: My first time crossing the bridge was after graduating from high school. We rented a wreck from Rent-a-Wreck. It was a Maverick and we drove all around the Bay Area. For inland Los Angeles girls it was the best time. Crossing the bridge, wherever you are from in California, it's your bridge. And it's like being on a bridge in the sky. There are stunning bridges in downtown L.A., crossing the Los Angeles River. But I had never been that close to flying. The sky, the water, the color -- the bridge is truly an amazing piece of architecture.

King: I'm an East Bay boy. I took the bridge for granted. I don't have any transcendent moment. But what struck me most was going to Fort Point last year and being down there under the bridge and being overwhelmed by the immensity of the achievement. You're down there on this weird little spit of land next to a fort from the 1850s, and this enormous graceful thing lunges past you into the ocean.

Jon Christensen: The building of the bridge and the opening celebration -- a "Golden Gate Fiesta" -- 75 years ago was filled with symbolism.

King: There was this very strong cultural symbolism. There was a practical need for the bridge, but also a desire to say we're going to show everyone by doing this that we are the city of the Pacific. We are better than Los Angeles. I quoted an editorial from the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in a recent story that said, "We are breaking down our walls, we are building a mightier city than you have ever seen ... the happiest, bravest and most prosperous city in the world."

Hartig: Wow. That's such a great mash-up of the American dream, the Declaration of Independence, and the national anthem, the home of the brave. I've come to see the bridge as a series of moments of remarkable bravery, chutzpah, and hubris. Man over nature, the great crown of the gateway, and the great crown of imperialism after the closing of the American frontier. We are looking to the Pacific. And we are putting a crown at the edge of the continent.

Christensen: The Golden Gate is the symbol of San Francisco now on everything from hoodies to hotdog stands. Before it was built, what would have gone on a San Francisco postcard?

King: Union Square, maybe, other buildings, images that at a glance you'd have to ask, what makes this any different from Cincinnati?

Hartig: What would have gone on a postcard and did was the Golden Gate itself, sunset at the Golden Gate. It's the edge of the West. I can't tell you how many hundreds of postcards we have in our archives, some of which are in our e-book.

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An ironworker at the base of the south tower (Reuters).

Christensen: The bridge is defined by its color more than any other piece of infrastructure that I can think of. How did they pick that color?

Hartig: The steel was made in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and came by sea through the Panama Canal. To protect it from the corrosive ocean air they used a sealant. So the steel arrived here at something close to that color. And it caught the eye of many people, especially bridge architect Irving Morrow. There was a very big public debate about the color. The Department of War wanted to paint the bridge black with yellow stripes. A lot of engineers wanted it to be gray, closer to the color of steel, the actual material, and to make it go away in the landscape. Others wanted the color to match the autumnal glow of the Marin headlands. There was a lot of poetry in getting the color right, the intensity and power that would capture the monumentality of the longest, tallest suspension bridge and accentuate the natural beauty of its context. The poetics really prevailed.

Christensen: What does it say about the Golden Gate Bridge that it incorporated a pedestrian walkway? How did that happen?

Hartig: It's not a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And it's not a short walk. But at the time, I don't think people would have dared to build a bridge without a walkway because so many pedestrians would use it. It's sad that only our modern culture could think of erasing pedestrians out of our transportation networks.

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A crowd crossing the bridge on opening day (Online Archive of California).

Christensen: History is full of unrealized possibilities. What is your favorite version of the bridge that didn't get built?

King: I think it would have been fun if the toll booths had been sleeker and cooler with guys wearing natty little uniforms in natty little toll booths. The problem is that these neat little toll booths in some designs were attached to overbearing, over-stylized buildings that would have been administrative offices, a museum, who knows what else. Now you've got a pretty junky administrative building there but it's so bland you don't notice it. If it had been a mock Mayan temple it would be hard to ignore.

Hartig: Actually, my favorites were the neo-Sumerian and neo-Mayan buildings that were contemplated. They were pretty jazzy. They spoke of the time. But in terms of where it ended up, I actually think the privileging of the structure itself, Eberson's towers, and Morrow's roadway matter most. The experience of the bridge should not be arriving in some grand procession up and through a Brandenburg Gate-like toll plaza, but crossing the bridge, and catching a view of it from somewhere in the city. Fortunately, the sheer cost prohibited some of the excesses that were contemplated.

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A concept drawing for a much worse-looking bridge (San Francisco Public Library).

Christensen: Why do we no longer dream so big and boldly and build so beautifully when it comes to our transportation networks?

King: One answer is fairly prosaic: the process these days. Another is that between then and now American society made a lot of big mistakes in terms of big projects and infrastructure. Neighborhoods were torn down. Freeways were put where they should not be. When the Golden Gate Bridge was unfurled across the most glorious portal in America, it fueled demand for more. After the Embarcadero Freeway pushed its way between downtown San Francisco and the bay progress was made by tearing it down and making sure nothing like that ever happens again. The problem is you get to the point where the triumph is all in the stopping. Defensive action can make people feel good about thwarting things, but also chokes off innovative things that reshape the landscape in good ways. The problem with process is not just stopping things, it's also all the constituencies that have a say. If you look at the new east span of the Bay Bridge, you can fault the beginning of that tortured saga. They said, we want to build an icon. So they set out to build an icon. The mayor of San Francisco, the mayor of Oakland, and others all had their agendas. But no one was pushing a vision. And you can't just go out and build an icon. The Golden Gate Bridge became an icon because of the grand ambitions of the design. That's different from building an icon. I don't think icons can be planned.

Christensen: How did the bridge change not just the Golden Gate but the surrounding communities as well?

Hartig: It certainly changed Marin. You can draw a straight line from the completion of the bridge to suburbanization in the '60s. Marin wasn't a suburb of San Francisco when ferries ruled the bay. And you never would have had the need for the environmental activism that led to the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which was truly a herculean effort that we all benefit from today. I also wonder if San Francisco hadn't benefited from other New Deal federal funding, what would have happened. That meant money could be spent on street widening in the city. Sidewalks shrunk to make traffic work. San Francisco became completely connected to the region with the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the Bay Bridge on the other -- all with federal funds. We don't think much about how streets were changed, but it was very dramatic. It ushered in a new way to understand the city. It became much harder to be a pedestrian, and easier to be in a car. And that tension is still playing out.

King: The Golden Gate Bridge definitely had an impact on suburbanizing East Marin and the environmental protection of West Marin, but the Bay Bridge had a more quantifiable impact on regional development. The Bay Bridge was more about dollars and cents, population growth. The Golden Gate Bridge was more aspirational.

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An ad the Brookdale Lodge in Sonoma County placed around the opening of the bridge (Archive.org).

Christensen: The Golden Gate Bridge turns 75 today. Will the romance ever fade? What keeps the love alive?

King: Everyone who sees it for the first time falls in love with it, and whether they consciously think about it, beyond the wonder of the setting and the structure, is the wonder of the seeming effortlessness of it, and how could something like this be here and be so good.

Hartig: It's Grace Kelly in Rear Window. It's effortless, yes. It's elegant. It's both seductive and solid, and temporal but lasting. That imprint is why it's used so often on everything from horrible magnets to stunning works of art and it has so easily become an icon. Its grace and beauty lend itself to that. It won't go away. I don't think we'll ever do stuff like this anymore. It stands peerless.

King: It's so rare in our society that things are embraced en masse architecturally. This is not just a cool piece of '30s design, it's a living presence. I don't think it will ever grow old.

Hartig: Yes, that consensus is so rare. I don't think it's too much to say it elevates the Golden Gate Bridge to the status of the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, architecture so universally acknowledged to be special, it floats above time as well as floating above the water, in the sky.

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Library of Congress.

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Jon Christensen is executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

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