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The Golden Gate: A Modern Wonder Of The World

The Golden Gate: A Modern Wonder Of The World
Historian Kevin Starr's new book, "Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge," recounts the history of this grand public work, its dazzling engineering, creative financing and its status as an American icon.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): If the Statue of Liberty is the welcoming symbol of America on the east coast, then, its counterpart here on the west coast has got to be the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco's great bridge is more than a local icon, it's a national symbol that both inspires and comforts. In his new book, historian Kevin Starr tells the story of how the bridge was conceived and built, what it's meant to the city it graces and how the strength and beauty of the structure came to mirror some of America's highest aspirations. Kevin Starr is professor of History at USC and author of many books on California history, including the California Dream series. His new book is called “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.” Kevin, welcome to These Days.

KEVIN STARR (Author): Maureen, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.

CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our audience to join the conversation. If you have a question about the Golden Gate Bridge or a memory of the bridge that you’d like to share, give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Kevin, in writing your book, “Golden Gate,” the writing in it is really quite poetic. And since you’re on the phone, maybe you’ll allow me to read an example of your prose?


STARR: Oh, I’d be honored. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. ‘The Golden Gate Bridge embodies a beauty at once useful and transcendent. It emanates a music of mathematics and design and offers enduring proof that human beings can alter the planet with reverence, can mend or complete their environment for social purposes. The bridge is a triumphant structure, a testimony to the creativity of mankind.’ Now, you write as if the Golden Gate Bridge is almost a living thing. Is that how you feel about it?

STARR: Well, it certainly, when you reach – Maureen, when a work of engineering such as the Golden Gate Bridge, becomes – or the Great Wall of China, becomes so established, so iconic, so a part of the materialization of an ideal, it really becomes, in many – Hoover Dam is another example, that it becomes in many ways part of the planet itself. And you – if it’s not living, it’s certainly possessed of a kind of reality that I suggest Charles Alton Ellis, who designed the suspension system, who was a great lover of Greek philosophy, a kind of reality that the philosophers like Plato and, even earlier, Pythagoras, explored in the sense that numerical relationships, etcetera, are not just arbitrary signs and symbols that we human beings have invented but reflect the functioning of nature itself. So that’s kind of a longwinded answer to it’s not exactly organic life but it is life of a kind. From that point of view, when we think of the Empire State Building or the Liberty – we think of the rise of New York or we think of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and Independence Hall, we think of the creation of the Republic. That kind of living testimony is part of place, architecture and engineering. I mean, that’s why San Diego did not tear down the Panama California Exposition buildings…


STARR: …in 1915.



STARR: Did not tear down Bertram Goodhue’s California building. But, instead, rebuilt and restored and it has subsequently maintained magnificently that ensemble which is now almost 100 years old because it is living, i.e. in a sense participates in the cumulative living life of San Diego. Well, Golden Gate Bridge does something very similar for the Pacif – like the Statue of Liberty, does something very similar for California…


STARR: …for America and for the Asian Pacific Basin.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, the Golden Gate as a sign, as a symbol, as a work of art, is so potent in just its visual aspect, I wonder why it inspired you to write a book about it. Is the fact that its story is perhaps being lost?

STARR: Well, you know, in one sense, Maureen, you’ve gone right to something which I’ll admit right from the beginning, is that in one sense the Golden Gate Bridge doesn’t need my book or any book. And to say that is to say that the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth doesn’t need any musical critic or Dante’s “Divine Comedy” doesn’t need any poetic critic or Shakespeare’s “King Lear” doesn’t need any literary critic. These great works of art, great accomplishments, speak for themselves. And the Golden Gate Bridge speaks for itself just like the 7 wonders of the ancient world speak for themsel – once spoke for themselves. On the other hand, we human beings have, when we come across these great creations like the Hoover Dam, like the Golden Gate Bridge, etcetera, we experience multiple meanings and we want to use words to tell ourselves and suggest what we were experiencing. So I wrote this very brief…


STARR: …book, it’s only about 225 pages. It’s about a 42,000 word book. Incidentally, it usually takes me about 42,000 words to clear my throat so this is a brief book compared to most of my other books, which all run about four or five hundred pages. But we want to use words and use conceptualization, use metaphors, to express to ourselves the responses, the complex responses we’re having in the presence of these great engineering and artistic icons.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Well, I want to make – First of all, I’m speaking with historian Kevin Starr about his new book, “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.” If you’d like to join us, you can call 1-888-895-5727. I want to make clear to the people listening, though, Kevin, that, indeed, this is not just a poem to the Golden Gate, this is – this does tell the story of the bridge, and I also wanted to ask you, being a New York native, why you think the Golden Gate is America’s greatest bridge?

STARR: Well, maybe that’s a stretch. You could make a tremendous argument that the Brooklyn Bridge is America’s greatest bridge or as people from the Midwest might say the Covington Bridge is the greatest. But you notice, Maureen, that I open up the book with a consideration of the Brooklyn Bridge.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yes.

STARR: And how the Brooklyn Bridge dawned on a whole generation, the writer Van Wyck Brooks, the writer Louis Mumford, the poet Hart Crane, who wrote the poem “The Bridge 1930,” Joseph Stella, the painter who did that three-part series of paintings of the bridge around World War I. The Brooklyn Bridge emerged as a great social symbol for America for a generation of both native born and longtime Yankee Americans and new immigrants, i.e. that the bridge suggested that technology, industry, cooperative work, etcetera, in the United States could bring about a good society, a society that would not be disruptive of nature but would actually enhance the natural environment and make it more productive. And I think that primacy belongs – the primacy of history belongs to the Brooklyn Bridge to express – in expressing that to Americans. But the Golden Gate Bridge is, I would say, more universally acknowledged as an international, global icon.

CAVANAUGH: I would give you that, indeed. Now, you know, I think many people might think the name, the Golden Gate Bridge, somehow comes from its color. But that’s not it at all. How does that – how do we get that name?

STARR: Well, the bridge was named in the early 1840s, mid-1840s, by John Charles Fremont. John Charles Fremont, Captain Fremont, the Army at that point was leading an expedition of the Army topographical engineers mapping and exploring the west. And when he encountered the strait there, it reminded him of the strait entering into the Golden Horn of Istanbul…


STARR: …ancient Constantinople and so he called it Chrysopylae, meaning Golden Gate in Greek terms because it suggested the similarities. And, incidentally, my wife and I were in, for the first time, visited Istanbul two years ago and it was a thrill to see that Golden Horn. But also for Fremont’s mind, suggested the great city that would someday rise up around this great bay comparable to the City of Constantinople in Istanbul, which rose up around its great waterway.

CAVANAUGH: So the entrance to San Francisco Bay was called the Golden Gate for years before the bridge.

STARR: Oh, absolutely. And if you notice, I quote Josiah Royce, our great philosopher’s Meditation on the Gate (sic).


STARR: And I suggest the paintings. In fact, we put a couple of the paintings in the book of the straits. You know, that strait was so fog – was so foggy that the Spanish sailed by it. The Spanish sailed by it in the 1540s, in the early 1600s. The Manila galleons that would come from the Philippines, one per year, coming down to the coast, across the Pacific and skirting San Diego, incidentally, they sailed by it because of the fog. It’s a very narrow, just slightly more than a – approximately a mile, say, from a distance, covered in fog, and it wasn’t really until 1775, 1776 that the Spanish began to sail into it. Although they did discover it on land in October, 1769.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, when did people first get the idea that it would be a – that this would be a great place for a bridge?

STARR: Well, I think from the beginning. If you look at discussions as early – and I bring this out in my book, there’s discussions of bridging, there’s some as early as the 1850s. But when the railroad came across in 1869, the railroad had the paradox of coming across the United States, being completed, coming into California, and coming across the Sierra into San Francis – into Sacramento but it couldn’t get to San Francisco unless the railroad went all the way down to San Jose and came back up again.


STARR: So the railroad precipitated discussion of bridging the bay. And one of those who discussed it was Emperor Norton, the alleged lunatic but I think he might’ve been more shrewd than a lunatic, emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, who lived on the streets of San Francisco in this period, called, in the late 1860s, for the bridge, although he wanted it to continue from Marin out to the Farallons, some 22 miles out into the Pacific.

CAVANAUGH: Now how difficult – bring us up to the 1930s when construction of this bridge is actually getting underway. How difficult was it to build the beautiful bridge, the Golden Gate?

STARR: Well, it was very difficult and the difficulties come, as I break them down in my chapters, from politics to finance to design. The initial design of the bridge, advanced by Joseph Strauss and Michael O’Shaughnessy in the early 1920s as a memorial to the dead of World War I, was two cantilevered structures meeting, heading toward each other and then joined in the middle by a suspension structure.


STARR: But one of the critics said of it that it looked like an inverted rattrap.


STARR: And that’s – that design stayed during the 1920s. It was there while the politics were taken care of, while the Bridge District was organized and while the different counties of the bay and Del Norte, county of the north, got together. Don’t forget, the Golden Gate Bridge is not a – was not, even though it was at the time of the Depression, was not a federal project. It was a local project and it was financed by private funds, A.P. Giannini and the Bank of America. But by 1929, 1930, the impresario of the bridge, Joseph Strauss, knew that he had to have a new design, which was published in that year, 1930, and that brought together the talents, literally, of a team. This is a work of art that was a team creation like some of our great motion pictures.


STARR: Moisseiff designed the towers. Charles Alton Ellis doing the suspension, and then Charles Derleth of UC Berkeley with the anchorages and Irving Morrow stylizing, the architect stylizing those gorgeous towers in an art deco mode, taking up from theatrical designs given by Joseph Boardman, was a designer of theatres. So you have a team that’s put together and by 1930-31, you have this absolutely state of the art design that really represents a quantum leap forward, if you will. The previous bridge to take in your mind is the George Washington Bridge, 1932…


STARR: …which was designed a little earlier and I’ve crossed that many times from New York into Ft. Lee and into New Jersey. And although it’s a very handsome bridge, you can see the effects that Moisseiff had in lightening the towers. In effect, sometimes you think that the best bridge for Moisseiff would be so light, so airy and so aerodynamic that it would almost start to fly.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes. You do, especially with those aerial photographs that you have in the book.

STARR: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: It’s amazing. I’m speaking with Kevin Starr. His new book – He’s an historian. His new book is “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.” We have a caller on the line. Mark is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Mark. Welcome to These Days.

MARK (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. And, Mr. Starr, that quote they read is going to make me want to buy your book. That was a great opening quote.

STARR: Oh, thank you. Well, listen, my high school English teachers would be happy to hear that.

MARK: It was worded very nicely. I wanted to ask you, in the late ‘80s they had an anniversary for the bridge.


MARK: I don’t remember what anniversary it was but they had closed the bridge off for traffic…


MARK: …and there was so many people on the bridge the roadbed actually had flattened out. Will you comment on the engine…

STARR: Well, that’s a part of my chapter on pedestrian – I have a whole chapter on the pedestrian aspects of the bridge. I mean, some 10 million people a year walk across that bridge. And that was a series of events no one could predict. The event was put on by amateurs but even the California Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s office could not predict the amount of people that showed up – who showed up, over 250,000 people. Fortunately, the bridge had been previously, a few years earlier, reinforced in its bed because to think about anything happening would be to think the unthinkable. You talk about the greatest industrial accident in the history of the human race is the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly. I’m wondering, you know, I think a big question a lot of people must have about the Golden Gate Bridge is why orange?

STARR: Well, international orange. It’s very interesting. They debated the color. The Defense Department, the War Department it was called then, wanted black, the Army Air Corps wanted a striped situation that could be seen through the fog. The Navy also wanted stripes but of a different color, etcetera. Now, meantime, as this was debating, they had put a primer on the bridge of – and the primer was in the color international orange. Now, if you look back, and you San Diegans have the great example of the fair that was given the same year, the Panama California fair, if you look back to the palettes, the color palettes of the Panama California Exposition in San Diego and the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, ’14, ’15, ’16, you can see that those colors to include something very close to international orange are being explored as appropriate to California. After all, the official color of the official flower of the state is the poppy, and that color is there, that orange color, the color of orange in the extraordinary citrus culture of Southern California. Look at the orange colors of those beautiful orange crate labels that we sent out…


STARR: …during that period. And so the atmosphere – suddenly, the primer became the leading contender. And people like Benny Bufano, the sculptor, Maynard Dixon, the artist, even Irving Morrow, the architect, they began to say, hey, let’s just leave this – well enough alone, stay with this color and transform ourselves from primer into paint…


STARR: …and that’s what it’s done. And the color has – fits with the atmospherics, with the whole setting there just beautifully.

CAVANAUGH: Well, a caller…

STARR: Without the – you can’t imagine the bridge without that color.

CAVANAUGH: A caller who couldn’t stay on the line wanted to ask you if you’ve heard the story of the painters of the bridge painting seagulls orange and scientists thinking that that was a new species of bird?

STARR: Uh-huh. Well, you know, there’s – You know, there’s so much folklore on the bridge and when I say folklore, I don’t mean that the stories are untrue. There’s so much folklore on the bridge, that’s one of them. And you can say, well, there’s no documentation for that. On the other hand, one can imagine a painter maybe would have a little snoot full, doing something like that. There’s an enor – I go into some of the stories and the folklore that’s around the bridge. And like any other architectural monument of this power, it has an enormous ability to generate stories about itself.

CAVANAUGH: How quickly – How did the city, San Francisco, the whole Bay area, react to the finished structure of the Golden Gate Bridge?

STARR: Oh, they were overwhelmed by it. Don’t forget, that in 1909, 60% of the people of California lived in the San Francisco Bay area.


STARR: Not just San Francisco but the entire Bay area. And don’t forget also that in April, 1906, that area was devastated by earthquake. We know that the loss of San Francisco but Santa Rosa, San Jose, there – Palo Alto, the Stanford University campus, that earthquake took down an enormous, enormous amount of the physical structure. And so the Golden Gate Bridge, in effect, was the last and triumphant completion of the rebuilding of the Bay area along with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge following the devastations of April, 1906.

CAVANAUGH: So from the 1930s when the bridge completed construction, how quickly did the Golden Gate Bridge actually become a nationally identifiable symbol?

STARR: Well, that’s a good question because there’s always the ellipsis of World War II…


STARR: …in which as – just even after 9/11, we recognized the vulnerability of some of our great landmarks to terrorist attacks so during World War II there was kind of a damper put on the bridge’s reputation in terms of lighting it and promoting it, etcetera, because of security purposes. But I look at the adver – I track it this way, Maureen, through the advertisements. And after World War II you began to see steadily growing in the ‘40s, ‘50s, certainly by the ‘60s, the use of the Golden Gate Bridge as an iconic background for ads. Well, one of the reasons is, it’s public property. You don’t have to pay to use it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. That’s very true.

STARR: And so I – And the book generously illustrates some of the more successful ads for the bridge.

CAVANAUGH: Some of the beautiful ads for the bridge.

STARR: They were gorgeous and – and just take a look at your television set. Any night you can see that bridge pop up advertising the background for all kinds of things.

CAVANAUGH: Right, now, finally, you describe the Golden Gate as serving the same function, really, for the United States on the west coast as the Statue of Liberty. What do you mean by that?

STARR: Well, it’s a statement of American value. Now the Statue of Liberty was given to us and sculpted by a French artist. On the other hand, the Golden Gate Bridge was given to us in part by immigrants who were born in Europe and came here and studied engineering in Europe and came here and practiced and became American citizens, as well as old-line fourth, fifth, sixth, tenth generation Americans. So the bridge is an expression of many things at once. Now let’s not forget it’s also a bridge, it gets you from one place to another.


STARR: Has a practical purpose, but also expresses the possibilities of American engineering, American design, American economic recovery at a time of great Depression, abiding faith in the future at a time of great depression, and I think some of those themes, which I try and suggest, reverberate with us today.

CAVANAUGH: I want to try to squeeze in a very quick call. Roger is calling from North Park. Good morning, Roger. Welcome to These Days. Roger, are you with us?

ROGER (Caller, North Park): …hear me?


ROGER: Yeah, hi, thanks very much. Just real briefly, I wanted to ask if the – basically about the – if your expert there had any information on the director’s book, the orange book that’s – that was given to some of the benefactors and so forth on the day of the inauguration?

STARR: Yes, it’s a beautiful book. We have – You know, I was State Librarian of California for ten years, and we have that in our archives there. That, the report, the official three-volume report of 1930-31 and then that 1937 orange colored book are very classic, key texts to the bridge. It’s a very valuable book. It was reprinted at the 50th anniversary. But if you have a first edition of that, it’s a very fine thing to have for your library.

CAVANAUGH: Kevin Starr, I want to thank you so much for being with us today.

STARR: My pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Kevin Starr’s new book is called “Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge.” And we’d like you to log onto our website at and tell us about your experiences with the Golden Gate Bridge. What was it like to see it for the first time? What does it mean to you? That’s Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview, as These Days continues here on KPBS.