Last year the Bay Bridge turned 75. Earlier this year the new San Francisco Mint turned 75 and the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge was also celerbated, in May, 2012.
Since its construction, eight longer suspension bridges have been built, but none rivals the Golden Gate Bridge, one of eight Engineering Wonders of the Modern World. Few today can conceive of the Bay without this dramatic proscenium. The feat itself remains remarkable: located between faults, its suspension allowed for lateral and longitudinal sway. It survived the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989; the Bay Bridge didn’t.
The Golden Gate Bridge, begun in 1933 and completed May 27, 1937, stretches 1.7 miles between two 746-foot towers anchored in the Bay. At a cost of $35 million (double its original cost), 25 million man-hours, and eleven lives lost (though 19 saved in its safety net), the bridge is equally stunning for its engineering as for its artistry. Its simplicity is breathtakingly majestic. Today it complements its setting while sheltering Ft. Point.
Joseph Strauss is cited as the project's chief engineer, though he had never built a suspension bridge and his original design was monstrous with a pretentious Arc de Triomphe entry portal. In fact, more than half a dozen men were as responsible, if not more so, for the bridge; however, Strauss was an indefatigable proponent and persistent advocate for this bridge. Further, he was remarkable in getting even his opponents to work with him to contribute to critical improvements. And he was always concerned about the safety of his crews. His firm initiated special diets to counteract dizziness, tinted goggles to prevent “snowblindness” from the sun, hard hats and safety lines, and means to reduce hearing loss from the noise of steel construction.
The bridge owes its existence to several innovative precursors and a team of exceptional men; without the efforts of each it would not stand today. For his innovation in weaving cables from many strands of wire to suspend bridges, John A. Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, was hired to spin the catenary cables and their suspender ropes across the Golden Gate straight. The Ben Franklin Bridge (1926) innovated the use of new cellular-plate steel towers and stronger cables to increase the unsupported spans of a bridge. And O. H. Amman’s George Washington Bridge (1931) extended this suspended roadway without stiffening trusses.
The Bridge District authority hired UC Berkeley professor Charles Derleth, Jr., an authority on suspension bridges, to monitor Strauss’ work. Derleth favored a suspension bridge for its flexibility, lightness and strength across broad spans. And University of Illinois professor Charles Ellis, not only advocated for a suspension bridge, but before the age of computers, he manually calculated all of the exhaustive equations for height, wind, waves, materials and loads to prove that a bridge of his design could withstand all these forces. He was joined in this by Leon Moisseiff, another authority from Columbia University, who calculated all seismic forces and how to withstand these. Thanks to their rigorous math, this bridge avoided the fate of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, which so contorted itself in a windstorm that it collapsed in 1940. Strauss was most fortunate to have onsite working continually with the crews the gifted engineering project manager Clifford Paine, who constantly looked after his men and certified every piece of the work.
But this bridge would not be the icon it is today without the stunning contributions of artists John Eberson and Irving Morrow. Consulting architect Eberson had a national reputation for dramatically enhancing monumental structures with Art Deco designs. And though he had never worked on a bridge before, Strauss believed he could transform the bridge, especially its towers and anchorages. Advances in metallurgy allowed the bridge to be higher yet stronger, and lighter yet more flexible without cross-struts.
Ellis’ design had cross hatched the towers beneath the roadway. And conforming to classical Greek architecture and the Renaissance theory of thirds (one-third below the road, two above), Ellis had created strength, suppleness and a soaring esthetic. He made the towers seem effortless both by stacking tapering rectangles—each smaller than the one it is perched upon—and by indenting each tier, thanks to the strength of steel-plating and reinforced horizontal trusses. As form followed function, Ellis and Eberson made the artistry conceal the engineering. Eberson’s artistic ideas, though costly, were adopted.
In 1930, Strauss replaced Eberson with local architect Irving Morrow, with the only demand: “Make it beautiful.” Morrow too saw the bridge as sculpture, with the lightweight towers cradling the gentle curve of the cables and its suspenders which arcked the bridge across the straight. He carried forward the look of the towers’ fluting to the rails, lampposts and sidewalks, as well as the toll booths. And it was Morrow who convinced all to go with the color of the lead-based primer and paint the entire bridge in International Orange.
One final person, without the work of whom that of the designers and craftsmen could not have happened is A. P. Giannini. Giannini is the fabled San Francisco banker who, by conducting business behind a plank resting on two barrels with a handshake as collateral for a loan, cultivated small-business entrepreneurs and helped them rebuild the city after 1906. He transformed his bank into the mighty Bank of America, originally headquartered here. With all the bickering, and without any federal funds but only supported by bonds from five neighboring counties, it was Giannini, as chairman and president of the Bank of America, who assured that the bridge would be built: His bank bought the entire issue of $35 million at 5.25 percent interest. When financing was tough, Strauss called on him, correctly betting on his personal philosophy and commitment to social development.
To me, however, the most inspiring lesson of these icons is that they were conceived, constructed and completed during the depths of the Great Depression.
Today California’s High-Speed Rail challenges are dwarfed by those which faced the Golden Gate Bridge. The cost doubled but was paid off and considered a bargain. People objected to the bridge, its design and costs of engineering, construction and frivolous art. Iterative compromise improved the bridge, and the public was rewarded.
Now round-the-clock crews could be hired to lay high-speed rail track, providing substantial employment and training. The convenience, speed and cost of such transport rival any current means; more freeways, airports and cars in California, even if possible, will only further delay statewide. Despite the state’s stark structural debt and the challenging federal schedule, we can meet the challenge. The C. C. Meyers company has built critical projects ahead of deadlines and still makes money with private/public partnerships.
So, today we must ask: Do we have the mettle of our ancestors to leave our utilitarian mark and inspiring example for those who follow?