This Stretch of Freeway Was Actually Given a “Most Beautiful Bridge” Award
There is a beautiful bridge in San Francisco. No, not that one, although it is popular. The orange color is distinctive and the higher toll gives it an aura of exclusivity.
I’m talking about the beauty at the corner of Brannan Street and 13th Street/Division. The winner of the 1953 American Institute of Steel Construction Annual Award of Merit Most Beautiful Steel Bridge (Class II).
The Institute’s brochure, which can be found here explains the criteria for the award as follows: “To encourage widespread appreciation of the beauty that can be achieved in the design of large and small steel bridges, the American Institute of Steel Construction established in 1928 the practice of making annual awards that emphasize the aesthetics of bridges.”
When I first saw the sign announcing the award, my thought was that it was some sort of prank like the kind that was popular in the 90’s, perhaps by Laughing Squid or a similar group. I was reminded of those “On this date in 1856, nothing happened here” plaques. Standing under the freeway on a precariously narrow sidewalk, with cars flying by at high speed above and below and with a tangle of steel and concrete blocking the sky, it’s hard to find the beauty. Other bridges in the award catalog are elegant – cantilevered confections, a daring dagger of a drawbridge, or a whimsical recreation of London Bridge on the Turtle River in Georgia. What makes our bridge so special?
In 1948, when the city created a plan to blanket San Francisco in highways, the region around 9th St. and Brannan was occupied by heavy industry and a Western Pacific railyard. It was not exactly the sort of place that was known for its architectural beauty. Adding a few hundred tons of concrete and steel to the milieu was probably regarded as no better or worse than what was already there.
In trying to understand the story of this beautiful bridge award, I reached out to The American Institute of Steel Construction. When I asked him to explain the award, Scott Melnick, a senior vice president at AISC, responded with the following.
“If you research the Bayshore Freeway in the San Francisco Chronicle, you’ll learn that when it was built, it was considered highly futuristic and it was nationally recognized for both its modernity and its beauty. The 9th/10th Street Connectors were the most complex of the flyovers. If I had to guess, the award was a reflection of the prevailing sentiment at the time.”
The prevailing sentiment of the time has clearly changed, and now the least pejorative adjective I can come up with for this bridge is “sturdy.” It is, at its core, simply slabs of concrete dropped onto a gridiron of i-beams. Even that description is inaccurate, as the entire central freeway was retrofitted with support beams against seismic collapse some twenty years ago.
As I walked under the off ramp that leads to 9th Street, I tried to imagine under what circumstances I could consider this piece of infrastructure being beautiful. A group of homeless men were dismantling a bike, while a woman squatted next to a man who was rocking and holding his head in his hands. One of the dismantlers looked at me and said “hello” with the kind of direct bravado one learns from living on the street and having to convince everyone your existence is justified.
It’s a lonely, forgotten corner of San Francisco. The artist Rigo’s “One Tree,” painted in 1996, with its forlorn arrow pointing at a single tree, used to dominate the on-ramp. It has since been moved, so that the “one tree” sign points at an empty space, with no tree. It’s the sort of place that most people barely register as they get on or off the freeway. When I revisited the overpass for this story, the “Beautiful Bridge” plaque had been painted over by Caltrans.