The Golden Gate Bridge under construction, around 1935. The actual building of the bridge took over four years, with mensometimes perched more than 500 feet above the water in wind or fog.
It’s the western bookend to the Brooklyn Bridge — as iconic an American edifice as the Statue of Liberty, and a favorite spot for lovers, photographers and suicides. It’s been hailed as one of the modern wonders of the world, “perhaps the most successful combination of site and structure since the Parthenon,” a “democratic masterpiece” and a “giant harp hung in the western sky.”
Despite the many existing odes to the Golden Gate Bridge, Kevin Starr seems particularly well equipped to write a biography of that famous orange bridge. The author of more than half a dozen histories of California, Mr. Starr — a professor of history at the University of Southern California and state librarian of California emeritus — has written frequently about the myths and metaphors that festoon the Golden State, and he seems to instinctively understand the place that the Golden Gate Bridge has come to occupy in the national imagination as a symbol of American enterprise and the gateway to the Pacific.
Curiously enough, the passages in “Golden Gate” devoted to explicating the bridge’s symbolism and allure are its least persuasive: pretentious, clichéd, derivative and pompously theoretical. “In its American context, taken historically,” Mr. Starr writes, “the Bridge aligns itself with the thought of Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other transcendentalists in presenting an icon of transcendence: a defiance of time pointing to more elusive realities. Were Edwards, Emerson, or the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic thinker of great importance to the formation of American thought, alive today, they would no doubt see in the Golden Gate Bridge a fusion of material and trans-material forces held in delicate equipoise.”
It is when Mr. Starr turns from interpreting the bridge to recounting the story of its construction that his narrative takes off. Though it’s a story told many times before — most notably by John van der Zee in “The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge” (1986) and Allen Brown in “Golden Gate: Biography of a Bridge” (1965) — Mr. Starr does an agile job of situating the tale within the larger context of San Francisco’s efforts to rebuild after the Great Earthquake of 1906 and the nation’s march from the Roaring Twenties into the slough of the Great Depression.
He reminds us that the bridge, first proposed in 1921, initially encountered vociferous opposition from a variety of interests, including ferry companies (which saw the bridge as stealing their business) and environmental groups like the Sierra Club (which argued that such an edifice would profane the natural beauty of the site). There were also protests, Mr. Starr recounts, that “the Bridge was too costly, tolls would prove insufficient to redeem taxpayer-backed bonds, the geological foundations for the south pier were inadequate.”
Arguments that a bridge was vital for San Francisco’s development as a modern metropolis and the demands of commuters from Marin County and beyond would prevail in the end, however, and the bridge would help fuel the Bay Area’s exponential growth in the decades to come.
As it turns out, the years of wrangling over the bridge’s construction would lead to a design triumph. Mr. Starr describes the original plan of the Chicago entrepreneur Joseph Strauss as “an undistinguished example of industrial design” — an “upside-down rat trap,” in one opponent’s words. The revised blueprint, devised by a team of noted engineers and architects, would result in that rare thing: a triumph of design by committee.
The self-promoting Strauss would get credit for the Golden Gate, but Mr. van der Zee wrote in his book that it was Charles Alton Ellis, a University of Illinois professor and design engineer with enormous mathematical prowess, who was really the presiding genius behind the bridge. In this volume, Mr. Starr acknowledges that “Strauss turned the design of the suspension system, which is to say, the very essence of the Bridge” over to Ellis, who together with the civil engineer Leon Moisseiff, would grapple with the daunting challenge of designing a super long suspension bridge, subject to the intense tidal actions of the strait below, as well as high winds, fog and possibly earthquakes.
Crucial contributions, Mr. Starr says, were made by other consultants as well. Othmar Hermann Ammann (the chief designer of the George Washington Bridge) helped with the assembling of the bridge’s various components. John Eberson, a leading architect of movie theaters, developed the Art Deco vocabulary for the towers. And Irving Morrow, a local architect and skilled illustrator, refined those ideas further, accentuating, in Mr. Starr’s words, “the stepped-back segments rising vertically on all sides” of the twin towers.
The actual process of building the bridge, which began in January 1933 and ended in the spring of 1937, would be herculean. Mr. Starr writes that “the construction of the anchorages involved the removal of 3.25 million cubic feet of earth and pouring of concrete into frameworks twelve stories high, the equivalent of building two skyscrapers”; and that each of the bridge’s two transverse cables was 36 3/8 inches in diameter and under “63 million pounds of pull or tension from its own weight.”
Workers were perched 500 to 600 feet above the water and faced cold winds blowing in from the ocean. “In the summer,” Mr. Starr writes, “fog banks compounded the cold and obscured vision, which was a frightening thing, given the fact that at all times the Bridge site was an orchestration of dangerous objects in constant movement: steel being swung into place; tools and construction material being accidentally dropped; superheated rivets being heated aloft on precariously perched forges, then funneled through tubes to riveters working in near darkness inside the steel cells, or, if outside, tossed from forge to riveter through the air and caught with handheld funnels.”
As for the bridge’s famous color, international orange, it was not an obvious choice. Mr. Starr reports that Ammann favored gray (as used for the George Washington Bridge), and others wanted black. While the Navy “preferred a yellow and black striping to facilitate visibility for ships entering or leaving the Gate through low-lying fog,” the Army Air Corps wanted a red-and-white color scheme more visible from the air. The reddish-orange paint was primer, used to protect the bridge against the elements, and it gradually went from being a default choice to the color of choice.
In an over-the-top burst of purple prose, Mr. Starr observes that international orange not only “unified the Bridge into one compelling statement,” but also summoned memories of “the gold of the Gold Rush that had created the Bay Area, and the gold of the Golden Horn of the Bosporus first suggested by John Frémont when he named the site in 1846 and by metaphor evoked a color-drenched city of towers, domes, and stepped-back structures rising like Constantinople from blue waters along green hillsides, their red-tiled roofs touching a sun-flooded azure sea.”
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
A19th-century illustration of the Golden Gate by Peter Petersen Toft depicts Fort Point opposite the Marin Headlands.