Golden Gate Bridge

The Gate: The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge

(2000), John van der Zee

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the best-known and perhaps the most beloved of modern icons. It is the most photographed subject in the world today. Golden Gate Bridge, written and directed by Ben Loeterman for the “American Experience” PBS series, is no mere one-off documentary on the making of the bridge. While presenting how visionary promoter (and incompetent engineer) Joseph Strauss actually got the bridge built, the film explores the Golden Gate Bridge as an engineering statement, a social statement, and an art statement. Along the way, the viewer is treated to the strange, idiosyncratic, “only in San Francisco” behind-the-scenes stories, suggesting why the Golden Gate Bridge itself is one of the greatest “only in San Francisco” stories.

It became evident in the new automobile era of the 1920s that some sort of bridge was necessary to open the city to the counties north of San Francisco, to keep the city growing and therefore economically viable. (San Francisco is a densely built-up city, at the tip of a peninsula locked in on three sides by water, with no room to expand physically.) The only feasible site of construction would be the Golden Gate, the mile-wide-long gap in the coastal mountain chain where the fresh water flowing into San Francisco Bay rushes out to meet the salt water of the Pacific. To conceive of building a bridge at the very point of such a mammoth natural energy vortex is mind-boggling, even today. It would take the almost-megalomaniac vision and drive of Joseph Strauss (Loeterman compares him to P.T. Barnum and the Wizard of Oz) to transform this idea into a practical reality.

Chicago-based engineer Strauss had built many bridges–many small, ugly, black-painted bridges. He really was not the man to design or build the new Golden Gate Bridge. With little sense for either the mathematical or aesthetic concerns of such a huge and complex design project, Strauss persevered and succeeded in being publicly credited as the chief designer and engineer of the bridge. Fortunately, Strauss also had enough common sense to demur to the vastly superior talents of those he hired to his team.

Charles Alton Ellis, who had studied the Greek classics and was a meticulous engineer, was over 50 when he joined Strauss’s firm in Chicago. Ellis calculated all the details necessary for the bridge to be built as designed. Strauss, apparently, so feared Ellis that he eventually fired Ellis from the project and refused to give him full or accurate credit. Ellis went to his death, having never once seen the fruit of his labors. New York-based Leon Moissseiff drafted the suspension bridge design, the form the bridge would finally take, intuiting much of what would be needed to make such a large and soaring theory stand up when actually erected. Irving Morrow, a relatively unknown local San Francisco architect, persuaded Strauss to see the drama of the bridge and transformed Moissseiff’s suspension principle into the towering sculpture we know today, including its trademark “international orange" color, the Art Deco details and the cascading open-air towers which reflect ever-changing light as it plays off the bridge.

Something this monumental cannot be hurried. Part of the genius of the bridge was doing it right the first time. No corners were cut; the scandal of major corners cut in the building of the new San Francisco City Hall when it collapsed in the quake of ’06 were still fresh in the public’s mind. (The restored [1995-1999] City Hall makes a graceful cameo appearance.) All this was undertaken in the depth of the Depression. Undaunted by the many strong enemies of the bridge project, Strauss persuaded San Francisco and five northern counties to approve bonds. They would prove hard to sell, but Strauss worked his persuasive powers and convinced A.P. Giannini (founder of what is today Bank of America) to buy the bonds.

The remarkable story of the actual building of the bridge has been covered before (for example, in the History Channel’s Modern Marvels: The Golden Gate Bridge), but Loeterman adds dramatic and idiosyncratic nuances to the familiar iron workers union and the Halfway to Hell Club. Strauss had taken extraordinary safety measures to safeguard men working in 60-mph wind gusts and in icy fog conditions. Loeterman includes an oral history of Slim Lambert (his son Skip was interviewed), one of only two survivors of the largest construction accident on the bridge, caused by a collapsing staging platform. Remarkably, only ten men died in this incident, compared with the dozens more who had met with tragic ends on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge project, which was gong on at the same time on the other side of downtown San Francisco.

Strauss apparently paid a personal price for his public aggrandizement. Before the bridge had been completed, he disappeared and was later reported recuperating in the Adirondacks. Along with this news came word of divorce from his wife and marriage to a new trophy bride, twenty years his junior. Upon return to San Francisco Strauss withdrew from the public eye to his apartment on Nob Hill and oversaw the completion of the bridge from semi-reclusion. A year later, he would be dead of a stroke.

Ellis, permanently banished back to Chicago, never saw the completed bridge in person. But everyone who knew him and respected his skill believed what he said–that he, in fact, had engineered every stick of the Golden Gate Bridge. Contrary to his assertion, however, his name was not included on the dedication plaque. This program restores Ellis to his rightful prominence at the very heart of the monumental project. Like the Golden Gate Bridge itself, its story, as told here, is both transcendent and enigmatic.

Les Wright