A Wonder of the Modern World
Historian Kevin Starr of USC College has written more than a dozen books about the Golden State. His latest book published chronicles the life and times of the Golden Gate Bridge.By Pamela J. Johnson
November 30, 2010
Joseph Strauss’ audacity to try out for football as a spare 5-foot-3 undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati led to the creation of the Golden Gate Bridge.
During his tryouts, Strauss was injured so badly he was hospitalized. From his infirmary room window, he had a clear view of the grand Cincinnati-Covington Bridge.
As USC College historian Kevin Starr writes in his book recently published by Bloomsbury Press, Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge:
Strauss had time aplenty to enjoy his view of the bridge, and in that mysterious alchemy of conscious and subconscious forces so characteristic of developing young people, to have the bridge take hold of his mind as a poetic engineering statement uniting beauty and practical achievement.
Speaking during his graduation, Strauss read from his senior thesis proposing a bridge across the Bering Strait. Forty years later and now a highly successful bridge engineer, Strauss was ready to move forward on a comparable project — a bridge across the Golden Gate.
Unfortunately, his original design in 1921 was atrocious. Dubbed “an upside-down mousetrap,” the Sierra Club and other opponents claimed the jumble of trussed steel towers and gaudy superstructures would have scarred the majestic vista. So he recruited a team of exceptional talent to help him, although he later claimed all the credit. By late 1930, Strauss had a new design for the longest suspension bridge in the world, 4,200 feet from tower to tower.
The new plan resulted in “a structure of grace and beauty, emanating an almost supernatural amalgam of lightness and strength, its towers rising in Art Deco elegance against the California sky,” writes State Librarian Emeritus Starr, who will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame Dec. 14 in a formal ceremony in Sacramento.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver selected Starr and 13 others who “embody California’s innovative spirit and have made their mark on history.” Music icon Barbra Streisand and philanthropist Levi Strauss are among others chosen for The California Museum honor.
In his book, Starr’s reverence for the bridge is evident in the way he uppercases “Bridge” in each reference. The University Professor of History was born, reared and has lived most his life in San Francisco. It is where he and his wife Sheila met, married and raised their two daughters.
“Living near the Golden Gate Bridge is like living on the site of the Hollywood sign or living in New York on the site of Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building,” Starr says during an interview in his USC office, wearing his signature bowtie, this one chick yellow, and speaking in a deep voice reminiscent of Orson Welles.
A poster on the wall announces that California State Librarian Kevin Starr would be a keynote speaker at a major event that took place in 2004, the final year of his 10-year post. Another framed poster depicts a quintessential ’50s scene that graces the front of his book, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963.
When it comes to California, Starr is leaving no stone unturned — or at least no serpentine stone, the official state rock. Now, this includes delving into the Golden Gate Bridge, which he once swam under as a member of The Dolphin Club of San Francisco.
“When you’re swimming under the bridge and look up, you get the great sense of the structure soaring overhead,” Starr says.
That soaring design is covered thoroughly in the book, including its distinguishing burnt orange color scheme. Consulting engineer Othmar Hermann Ammann favored gray, as he used for the George Washington Bridge. Others wanted black. The Navy preferred a yellow and black striping to increase visibility for ships traveling through fog. The Army Air Corps argued for red and white to enhance visibility for pilots. While the debate raged on, a reddish lead-based primer covered the bridge to protect it during construction.
The primer, known as International Orange, caught on. The primer had a strong linkage to a staple in the color scheme by scenic colorist Jules Guerin for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, Starr wrote. Moreover, the color bespoke the gold of the Golden Gate, 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 Charles Frémont when he named the site in 1846. International Orange prevailed.
Starr traces the bridge construction beginning on Jan. 5, 1933, and lasting three years, five months, opening to pedestrian traffic May 27, 1937. He tells the tragic story of the 10 construction workers killed when the platform they were standing on gave way as the bridge neared completion. In all, 11 workers died during construction.
Among other things, the book chronicles the politics and financing behind the bridge. Another chapter is devoted to the bridge’s troubling legacy. Approaching its 50th year, the bridge had become second only to Mount Mihara, a volcano in Japan, as a place to commit suicide. By 2009, an estimated 1,300 people had hurled themselves off the edge.
A more upbeat chapter discusses the art the bridge has inspired, including poetry, photographs, paintings and movies. It outlines the contributions of others in the making of the bridge. San Francisco city engineer Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy, for example, played a vital role.
Yet at the bridge site, the only person remembered in the form of a bronze statute is Strauss, whose small frame is depicted in a double-breasted suit, clutching a draft plan.
“Strauss for all his faults, and there were many, was the impresario of the bridge,” Starr says. “He was the Cecil B. DeMille of the bridge. He was the David Belasco of the bridge. Strauss envisioned the bridge initially. But the bridge ultimately was designed by a team.”
Although Golden Gate recently hit the stands, Starr's newest book, Clio on the Coast: The Writing of California History 1845-1945, will be published mid-December by The Book Club of California. It gives a detailed overview of prominent California historians such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and Robert Ernest Cowan.
“These are all the historians who I read at Harvard when I was getting my Ph.D. who guided me into going into California history,” Starr says. “They inspired me.”