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.

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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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