When the Bay Bridge towered over San Francisco

A new exhibit at San Francisco's de Young museum showcases photographs and art of the construction of the Bay Bridge in the mid- to late '30s.

Photographer Peter Stackpole's 1936 picture of the cable spinning operation for the construction of the Bay Bridge, and the gallows that dot the catwalks. The photograph is one of dozens by Stackpole, along with other paintings, drawings, and lithographs included in "The Bay Bridge: A Work in Progress, 1933-1936," a new exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Peter Stackpole/Fine Art Museums of San Francisco

These days, the Golden Gate Bridge is by far the most famous span in the world, let alone California, or even San Francisco. Yet, in 1937, when it was completed, it was considered an afterthought by many, overshadowed by a much larger and more ambitious cousin.

That other bridge, of course, is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, also completed in 1937, an architectural masterpiece that took the Depression-era world by storm.

Today, San Francisco's de Young museum debuts "The Bay Bridge: A Work in Progress, 1933-1936," a brand-new exhibit of about 100 photographs and other works.

According to the exhibit's curator, Jim Ganz, the goal was to showcase not just the Bay Bridge -- as beautiful and important a structure as it is -- but also the 1930s, a period that was "such an exciting moment in American art." As Ganz explained, America was just beginning to come out of the Great Depression in the late '30s, and government sponsorship of art and artists was a very important thing then. San Francisco, he added, was a "major site of activity for the American art world at the time."

Of course, for a city in love with the Golden Gate Bridge, its less-celebrated span generates mixed emotions. "Here in the Bay Area," Ganz said, "we all have a love-hate relationship with the [Bay] Bridge....It's been a source of drama and it doesn't have the serenity of the Golden Gate Bridge....But back in the '30s, this was one of the most impressive public works projects in the country. It was absolutely unprecedented in terms of what it sought to do. It was very exciting, and it went up very quickly and efficiently, and employed thousands of people."

As such, the bridge attracted many artists, Ganz continued, especially at a time -- the Works Progress Administration was in effect -- when artists were paid a salary to carry out their work. The Bay Bridge, he said, "more so than the Golden Gate Bridge, was an absolute magnet for artists."

About half the exhibit features photographs by Peter Stackpole. Then a young unknown -- especially compared with some of the celebrated WPA artists in town -- Stackpole devoted much of his time to taking pictures of the Bay Bridge, albeit without a government commission. "What we've done is bring together the work of this brilliant young photographer with works of art created by many of the WPA time period," Ganz said, "to show people just how exciting the Bay Bridge construction was in the 1930s."

Artist Leo Villareal's Bay Lights Project, currently installed on the Bay Bridge. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Today, the Golden Gate Bridge is far better known, and the brand-new eastern span of the Bay Bridge probably gets more attention than the western span, which connects San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Today, even the western span itself may be best known for artist Leo Villareal's Bay Lights Project , which is in the middle of a minimum two-year run. Yet, the bridge stands tall above downtown San Francisco, a force to be reckoned with, and a true thing of beauty.

Now visitors to the de Young will have a chance to see how it came together. And how its construction helped to galvanize a community suffering through years of squalor. "It [was] really an American icon of the West Coast and California," Ganz said, "because at the time, the Bay Bridge was really a much more complicated, expensive, and elaborate project" than the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

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