Across the great divide

The Golden Gate Bridge celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Golden Gate Bridge 390 (photo credit: iStockphoto)
Golden Gate Bridge 390
(photo credit: iStockphoto)
SAN FRANCISCO – That icon of all icons, the Golden Gate Bridge, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, so I happily used the occasion to re-visit this engineering masterpiece, which links San Francisco to Marin County.
Making a couple of days of it with my wife, I combined the visit with things to see and do within easy range of the famous span, whose unique “International Orange” color glimmers in the western sun.
But first some historical background about the bridge, whose art deco fluting hearkens back to another era.
The bridge was completed in May of 1937 in the darkest of economic times – the Great Depression – when government money for a project like this was simply unavailable.
Joseph P. Strauss, a daring Jewish bridge engineer with a talent for poetry, kept up a steady drum beat for the project until it was finally funded by a successful bond measure.
“It was from the get-go the ‘people’s bridge,’” said Mary Currie, public affairs director of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District.
The successful bond measure was passed in 1930 and, in the end, the bridge was built for $35 million, a much lower cost than predicted, with Strauss as its chief engineer.
This year, Bay Area organizations will stage 75 tributes to the bridge, with everything from a Pacific orchid exhibition and gala sponsored by the San Francisco Orchid Society to a “Swinging on the Golden Gate Bridge Ball” with bridge-era music, sponsored by the Art Deco Society of California.
In addition, there will be bridge-themed events at Fort Mason Center, Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.
The culminating event will take place on Memorial Day weekend, May 26-27, 2012, when the Golden Gate Festival along the San Francisco waterfront features a historic watercraft parade, music and dance stages, art installations, history and educational presentations, a display of cars from 1937 to the present and bridge-related activities on Crissy Field and the Marina Green. Anniversary fireworks are planned for 9:30 p.m. on May 27.
The entire list of events can be found at
A NUMBER of improvements are also being made to the bridge area, including the building of a new bridge pavilion with a museum store; renovation of the historic Round House for visitor education; upgrades to the artdeco Bridge Café, including a new menu; a “green screen” photo area where visitors will be able to picture themselves in dramatic and publically-inaccessible bridge locations; new, personally-guided bridge tours, including the first-ever night tours with the latest in audio technology; and enhancements to the bridge plaza and the adjacent national parklands, trails and overlooks within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
A visit to the bridge can mean many things – from the simple joy of seeing the massive span to walking its length from end to end (just under two miles).
And since the bridge links San Francisco with Sausalito in Marin County, it’s always pleasant to look back at the San Francisco skyline from the observation point near Sausalito, whose location on the edge of the bay is well worth a stop for an ice cream or maybe something more.
Visitors can also enjoy Alcatraz Island, Lands End (a good spot for bridge photos) and the Presidio army base, with its forests and trails.
Another way to appreciate the bridge is on a ferry cruise with the Red and White Fleet, which is anchored at Fisherman’s Wharf. Daytime and twilight cruises pass under the bridge itself, and the evening cruise includes entertainment and a buffet.
AND THEN there’s the wonderful Marina neighborhood, filled with classy mansions in sight of the bridge. This is where you can watch people flying kites at Crissy Field and where my wife and I have spent many afternoons walking along Chestnut Street – home to clothing boutiques and eateries.
A web of wires hovering above the thoroughfare accommodates the city’s electric buses, which can take you to Chinatown and beyond to Union Square shopping.
On our recent visit, we stayed at the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-appointed hotel on North Point Street with Knuckles at the Wharf Restaurant. The hotel is a convenient walk from Fisherman’s Wharf and an easy drive to the Marina district.
As we usually like to do, we strolled up and down Chestnut Street, checking out places like Laline, the chic Israeli beauty product company; Luca’s Delicatessen, an old-fashioned Italian place at the bottom of a tall, beigecolored apartment building; and the Marina Market, with fruits and vegetables displayed in sidewalk stalls.
A great place for breakfast on Chestnut Street is Bechelli’s, a vintage diner with a semi-circular counter and cozy booths next door to the art deco Presidio movie house.
From here you can walk to San Francisco’s landmark Palace of Fine Arts on a small lake off residential Lyon Street, a perfect place to take a quiet stroll by the water.
Built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the palace houses the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception.
There’s also a vastly different experience I’d recommend to anyone coming to San Francisco for the first time: the zany musical theatre extravaganza called “Beach Blanket Babylon,” created by the late Steve Silver in 1974 and still going strong, thanks to the dedication of his wife, Jo Schuman Silver, the show’s producer. The show plays at the Club Fugazi cabaret on Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. in North Beach, the city’s Italian neighborhood which is home to many Italian restaurants and the legendary City Lights Bookstore.
The show also has a Golden Gate Bridge connection, when one of the characters wears a San Francisco skyline headpiece with the iconic bridge towers on it. We met Silver in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the Embarcadero, where a large model of the San Francisco skyline headpiece from the show is part of the hotel’s San Francisco icon display through March 31.
“One of the reasons the show is still running,” Silver later told me, “is because it’s ever-changing…We take things right from the headlines. If something happens in a newspaper or on television today, and I thought it was relevant and our customers would care about it, then it would be in the show tonight.” What you get in the show, which features Snow White on a search for love, is a zany, anything-goes group of musical numbers brilliantly performed by many well-known “personalities” all dressed up in memorable vertical hair pieces.
One moment it may be Elvis Presley, another moment Hilary or Bill Clinton, and still another Sarah Palin or Rick Perry – no one is safe.
Snow White even meets a Jewish matchmaker, which is enough to have you rolling on the floor.
A New York native, Silver writes the skits with the show’s director, Kenny Mazlow.
She told me that her late husband, who grew up in San Francisco, never explained how he did the show – “it kind of came out of his back pocket.” But she and the crew keep it going because they “run it exactly as if Steve was here.”
“The show is indescribable,” she said. “You can’t really describe exactly what it is. We tell people ‘You’re just going to have the most wonderful 90 minutes of your life.
If you came in upset or depressed, it will all go away during that show and you’ll feel great afterwards.’ We’ve been telling people that for 38 years.”
And for 75 years, the Golden Gate Bridge, too, has been winning people’s hearts, thanks to pioneers like Strauss, whose statue stands in the bridge visitor plaza.
When the bridge was completed, he honored it with a poem called “The Mighty Task Is Done,” and while the task may indeed be done, visitors will continue to appreciate the bridge for a long time to come.
George Medovoy covers travel at