84 years old and still a stunning beauty!
Photograph by Robert E. David
The Golden Gate Bridge has been called “the most photographed bridge in the world.” Completed in May 1937, this timelessly beautiful Art Deco structure never fails to touch the hearts of the millions who see it and travel across it every year. Ever since it was built, it’s become famous thanks to films, television, books, and just about every form of media there is. The Bridge connects the city of San Francisco to its northerly neighbor, Marin County. It’s been deemed one of the “Seven Wonders of the Engineering World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, joining other engineering feats like the Panama Canal and the Empire State Building. Not many people know that Chesley Bonestell played an important role in getting the Golden Gate Bridge built!
Shepp's Photographs of the World
The Golden Gate in 1891 before the Bridge was built.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 led to the explosive growth of San Francisco. To enter the city’s harbor, ships would have to pass through a narrow strait of water known as the Golden Gate. Decades later, when automobiles were introduced, the idea of connecting the city with northerly Marin County by bridge began to be taken seriously. Such a structure, however, would have to be 1.7 miles long. Fierce currents, winds that sometimes reached 60 mph, and treacherously deep waters were beyond the technology of that time. A bridge of this size and complexity had never been built before. Opposition from ferryboat owners and the staggering estimates of the cost of this ambitious project led people to believe such a bridge would never be built. One man, however, knew he could do it but it would take fifteen years of tirelessly promoting his plans before construction would begin.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives, Photograph by Charles Hiller                                        
The Golden Gate Bridge’s Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss in 1937.
Joseph Strauss was a bridge builder from Chicago, Illinois who had built some 400 bridges in the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world. His original vision of a combination cantilever and suspension bridge for the Golden Gate was not well received. It was lacking in, um, charm, shall we say?
Strauss’ early design circa 1917 for the Golden Gate Bridge.
Strauss revised his plans and came up with a more graceful suspension bridge design, yet he still faced daunting challenges. He needed money, of course, but in 1929, the country was plunged into the Great Depression. He also needed support from the city fathers and the citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area. For the most part, these were people who could not read engineering drawings and blueprints, so Strauss sought the help of native San Franciscan Chesley Bonestell.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives
Original blueprint for the plan and elevation of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Chesley’s artistic talents and architectural background were exactly what Strauss needed.

Golden Gate Bridge Archives
Cutaway Cross-Section of the Bridge’s South Tower, Fender Walls,
and Foundation painted by Chesley Bonestell.
Chesley turned complicated engineering drawings into works of art.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives                
Southernmost Pylons and Arch of the Bridge by Chesley Bonestell.
His paintings showed people how beautiful and inspiring the Golden Gate Bridge would be, once completed.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives                        
     The informative booklet with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell.
Chesley also illustrated a booklet that made it simple for anyone to understand how the Bridge could be built. Now seeing the magnificence of what Strauss had in mind, both politicians and the public were motivated to build it. There was also an added incentive: constructing the bridge would bring much-needed jobs. Bonds were then issued to pay for its 35 million dollar cost. Financing was assured when A.P. Giannini committed the resources of his bank, The Bank of America, to the project. Construction began on January 5, 1933.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives                                 
Assembling the Bridge’s main cable strands circa late 1935.
To build the Bridge, Strauss used 389,000 cubic yards of concrete, 83,000 tons of structural steel, and incorporated 80,000 miles of steel wire, enough to circle the earth three times.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives, Photograph by Charles Hiller
 Roadway trusswork being hung from suspender ropes in October 1936.
The Bridge took four years and five months to complete. Strauss kept everything on budget and to build it today would run into the billions.
FDR Library
On May 27, 1937, the Bridge was completed and first opened for pedestrians only. The next day, using a telegraph key on his desk in Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signaled the Bridge to open for a ceremonial motorcade. Since then, traffic has grown dramatically to over 40 million vehicle crossings each year. Toll revenue collected in 2019 was $151,688,500, confirming that the Bridge is still a very sound financial investment.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives, Photograph by Charles Hiller
Opening day motorcade on May 28, 1937.
Gray, silver, or black were the traditional color choices for bridges of that era and it was assumed that the Golden Gate Bridge would be painted in one of those. The U.S. Navy, however, wanted a black and yellow color scheme to make it more visible for ships coming in and out of San Francisco harbor.
How the Bridge might have been painted if the U.S. Navy had gotten its way.
During construction, the Golden Gate Bridge’s Consulting Architects, Irving and Gertrude Morrow, took note of the color of the primer used on the structural steel being delivered from the Bethlehem Steel mill in Pennsylvania. Taken by how distinctive it looked, they successfully lobbied the U.S. War Department to permit them to paint the Bridge in its own special version of that color, which came to be known as “International Orange.” It’s still the color being used today.
Photograph by Robert E. David
The Bridge’s South Tower
The Bridge is located in a harsh, corrosive environment where powerful, wet, and salty winds from the Pacific Ocean– as well as the famous San Francisco fog – constantly attack the Bridge’s steel. The whole bridge is continuously inspected and various features repaired and painted as required.
Golden Gate Bridge Archives                                                     
A Bridge painter at the top of the South Tower,
750 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
Photograph by Robert E. David
The Golden Gate Bridge: Now eight decades old and still magnificent.
In the early 1980s, Chesley Bonestell was reunited with his Golden Gate Bridge paintings when Robert E. David, who was the Design Director and Photographer for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, brought them down to Chesley’s home in nearby Carmel, CA. Chesley, then in his nineties, hadn’t seen them since he painted them fifty years earlier. Robert reports that Chesley was very glad to see his “old friends” once again.
Photograph by Robert E. David
Chesley at his home with one of his Golden Gate Bridge paintings.
In the award-winning documentary, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, the story of Chesley’s important involvement with the Golden Gate Bridge is told by photographer Robert E. David, author and professor Catherine Newell, historian James Dalessandro and noted film director Douglas Trumbull. To see a fascinating excerpt, please click here.

To watch, rent or buy the entire film. Click on the image below:
Please visit our website: www.chesleybonestell.com
Our very special thanks to Robert E. David for his editorial help with this newsletter and for the use of his wonderful photographs that appear in it.
Robert E. David (at right) photodocumenting a Bridge crew
doing tension tests on the Bridge’s cable bolts.
Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future has been featured in an article in this summer’s edition of Sci Fi magazine, written by Senior Contributor Jeff Berkwits. Pick up your copy today at a newsstand near you!
Copyright © 2021 Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, All rights reserved.

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