Kevin Starr's Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge is an interesting little book. Its author is a history professor at USC, and is a former “state librarian of California”, who has a dozen or so books out, mostly about California, and the majority of those in a 7-part series Americans and the California Dream. So, he's no “carpetbagger” when it comes to things iconic about California.
The book could be seen as a series of inter-linked essays, as each chapter is focused on one aspect, and could almost be free-standing. These are “Bridge” (introductory material), “Icon”, “Site”, “Vision”, “Politics”, “Money”, “Design”, “Construction”, “City”, “Suicide” and “Art” … each (obviously) taking a look at these varied aspects of the Golden Gate Bridge.
As regular readers of my reviews know, I typically will put in little slips of paper to note places where I feel good “example passages” are to give some flavor of the original in these scribblings. While I quite enjoyed the read, and found the material very interesting, I only ended up with three of these bookmarks stuck in here, and all of those in the first 10% of the book … not sure why at this juncture, but I do find it somewhat surprising. I guess I'm going to be winging it for most of this.
The first of these was right at the start … and I was wondering if the whole book was going to be as “florid” as this part of the introductory paragraph:
Needless to say, the book does not continue in this mode (how could it?), but it sets things out in a modality that is hardly the standard “let's take a look at this piece of engineering” or “ain't that a cool landmark?” tones that might be expected in a book about a bridge. However, Starr isn't quite done with the “highfalutin” verbiage, as later in the “Bridge” chapter he adds:… Like the Parthenon, the Golden Gate Bridge seems Platonic in its perfection, as if the harmonies and resolutions of creation as understood by mathematics and abstract thought have been effortlessly materialized through engineering design. Although the result of engineering and art, the Golden Gate Bridge seems to be a natural, even inevitable, entity as well, like the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth. In its American context, taken historically, the Bridge aligns itself with the thoughts 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.
Again, the book starts out in a philosophical mode, and in the “Icon” chapter, these issues are tied to historical antecedents (both conceptually and bridge-wise), and assorted poetry (including one that gets the rather “purple” description of being “elliptical and elusive, modeled on the vatic Ur-Poem of the twentieth century, fully cognizant of the perils and terrors of modern life”!). He notes here that:From an iconic perspective, the Golden Gate Bridge offers a West Coast counterpart to the Statue of Liberty, announcing, in terms of American Art Deco, American achievement and the higher purposes of American culture. And it does this with its own element of historical narrative, subtly contained in the Art Deco stylization of its towers played off against repetitive cables descending into a reversed arch against an interplay of city, sea, and sky. …
Which is followed by an interesting name-check of the authors of the original “seven wonders” (in the ancient world), which were “Greek historian Herodotus and the poet-scholar Callimachus of the Library of Alexandria” (I don't believe the latter had ever made it onto my radar). The last thing that I flagged was the introductory paragraph for the “Site” chapter … which, if memory serves, is pretty much when Starr buckled in and started to actually write about the bridge, in its various aspects … but I figured I'd throw it in here for you:The American Society of Civil Engineers ranks the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, along with such other choices as the Channel Tunnel, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal.
While the preceding might seem a bit over-blown, it does introduce a number of themes brought up in the “Site” chapter, including the geological development of the San Francisco Bay through the exploration of the region my mariners going back to the 16th century. However, it was not until the mid-18th century that the Bay was discovered. This was due to the narrowness of the Golden Gate itself, which “acted as a funnel and stabilizer for fog”, which meant that unless a ship was running right up the coast (a hazardous venture), the passage would be virtually impossible to see. In fact, it wasn't “discovered” until a group of Spanish soldiers in 1769, exploring the coastline to the south, crested a ridge and “beheld a great inland sea stretching north, south, and east as far as the eye could see”, and it wasn't until the fall of 1775 that a ship ended up sailing into the Bay, and only in 1776 was the first permanent settlement established. When gold was discovered in the region 70 years later, everything changed, and the urban San Francisco swarmed up and over the hills.The Golden Gate Bridge serves as the focal point and organizing principle of a fusion of nature and history that is at once a matter of geography and public art. In the perceptions of those encountering it, the Bridge and its site reflect eons of geological time and a shorter period of human association. As drama, then, the Bridge celebrates that interaction of nature, technology, and social purpose that created Native American, Spanish, Mexican, American, and ultimately global California across centuries of human development.
In the “Vision” chapter, Starr traces the ultimate concept of the bridge to “El Camino Real – the Royal Highway, the King's Highway” of the Spanish, which “linked the twenty-one missions founded between 1769 and 1823 at intervals of a day's march”, which ended up having a bit of a hiccup at the Golden Gate, requiring either a very long circumnavigating of the Bay, or ferrying across the strait. He suggests that, after 1937: “the Golden Gate Bridge completed the vision of Spanish Franciscan missionaries of an Alta California unified by one Royal Highway”. In the 19th century, there was a lot of interest in getting something built there, especially from railroad concerns, who found themselves having to re-route trains through the central valley, or ferrying across the channel. With the popularization of automotive transportation, the ferry business became a huge operation, and a major bottle-neck, with commuters having to wait in lines hours long to get their turn on the ferries. It's also in this chapter that some key players in the bridge's development are introduced, including San Francisco city engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy, and Chicago-based bridge engineer, Joseph Baerman Strauss (another Chicago connection in the story is that of Daniel Burnham, who had developed a “Burnham Plan” for San Francisco, delivered just before the 1906 quake/fire that destroyed much of the existing city … in their haste to rebuild, even less of his plan got built there than was the case in Chicago).
One of the interesting aspects of the bridge is that it was a local development, and managed by a local board, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. The “Politics” chapter goes through the extremely convoluted pathway it took to make this happen (it was structured to take advantage of existing legislation “authorizing multi-county irrigation districts empowered to issue bonds, raise money, construct irrigation projects, and administer ongoing irrigation programs”). There were numerous interests both supporting and opposing the bridge, and from its initial approval in 1923, there were on-going lawsuits and challenges. These were still going on when the stock market crashed and the Depression started, and even though the project won what should have been a “final” vote (carrying by a 3-1 margin), more lawsuits were launched at it. In the “Money” chapter, the details on the financing are looked at, noting the influence of banker Amadeo Peter Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy (in the Italian areas of S.F.), later to become Bank of America and the Transamerica Corp.. His backing of the bridge (agreeing to purchase the first offering of bonds) gave it a key boost in the wake of “the fire” and amid the Depression.
There's more dirt being dished in the “Design” chapter, as it appears that Strauss' initial design was quite uninspiring, Most of the “heavy lifting” in terms of the mathematical calculations necessary to build the largest bridge in the world, were coming out from the pencils of Charles Alton Ellis, a professor of structural and bridge engineering at University of Illinois … although he was later all but erased from the project by Strauss (who liked having the credit to his firm) … in cooperation with engineers Leon Moisseiff, Othmar Hermann Amman (who had designed the George Washington Bridge in New York), and Charles Derleth, Jr., along with geology professor Andrew Lawson (who was key in certifying the stability of the bases of the bridge's pylons). Two architects were largely responsible for the Deco “look” of the bridge, John Eberson and Irving Morrow, neither of whom had any background in bridges, the former making his name in theater houses, the latter being a “thought leader” in the architectural community. This chapter also dips its toe into Pythagorean theory, and discussions of some of the extreme technical challenges faced by the design team. One fascinating point discussed here was about the bridge's “International Orange” color … it was not necessarily an intentional choice, but was the color of the lead-based primer used to protect the components of the bridge as it was being built. Despite numerous other suggestions being put forward from everybody from the Navy to some of the engineers, the orange-red seemed to have “compatibility as far as the site and atmospherics were concerned”, helped make the bridge more visible in foggy conditions, and ended up as the iconic hue it has become.
The “Construction” chapter is fascinating, as there are elements involved that I never suspected … such as the cables needing to be spun from 0.196” wire on site, with carriages holding the spinning mechanisms moving 640ft/min. When there were 452 wires spun, they were banded into hexagonal strands, which were the put into groups of 64, and six circular hydraulic jacks compressed these into a single cable. Pretty amazing. One notable thing here is that Strauss established a hard-hat requirement, soon to be an archetypal element of construction sites, and set up a safety net, which saved many workers. In the “City” chapter, more construction factors are covered, including the shocking news that the bridge might have been destroyed (much like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940) in a violent windstorm with 69mph gusts in December of 1951 … the report noted that had the winds kept up another half-hour, the bridge likely would have failed … this led to an update “which increased the torsional rigidity of the Bridge by a factor of thirty-five”, completed in 1954. Similarly grim is the “Suicide” chapter, which notes that the Golden Gate Bridge is the second “most popular” place on the planet (behind a volcano in Japan – go figure) for folks to kill themselves. Starr goes into a lot of statistics here, both on numbers of deaths, and the tech issues (velocity achieved on the way down to the water, etc.) involved, all of which I think I'll spare you (although the paragraph with the “chum for sharks” comment was very tempting). This is filled with demographic info (85% of jumpers are locals, for instance), and touching stories about notes, interventions, and even a movie (The Bridge) about these suicides. The final chapter, “Art”, is (predictably), an over-view of how the iconic structure has manifested in photography, painting, film/video, and popular media.
As noted, Golden Gate was quite an engaging read, and I think most folks would find it of interest. It's still in print in a paperback edition, but the hardcover I found at the dollar store is in the new/used channels with “like new” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping), so it can be added to your library quite reasonably if it sounds like something you'd like to have.