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75th birthday celebration for the Golden Gate Bridge

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As its 75th birthday fast approaches, the Golden Gate Bridge is getting a little birthday present. Even though about 40 million vehicles cross it each year and visitors come in droves daily to admire and photograph it, the spectacular span has never had a visitor center. That is, until this month.

"The bridge experience up to this point has just really been self-guided and a photo opportunity," said David Shaw, vice president of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. "Now there's this bridge pavilion, which is a really nice welcome center. You enter the building and are greeted by a National Park Service ranger who can answer your questions and help you orient your visit. There are a number of interpretive panels that tell the bridge story and some actual artifacts."

Visitors will also find a new café and a gift shop where good-quality merchandise has replaced the former kitsch.

Even on the dreariest of San Francisco days, visitors can get their pictures taken in front of a bridge basking in warm sunshine, thanks to technology.

"A lot of people come to the bridge and their first question is, 'Where's the bridge?' because it disappears in the fog almost every other day," Shaw said. "The … photo program is a fun aspect if you come on a day when the bridge pulls its disappearing act."

Just-begun tours, offered daily, share the bridge's history and interpret what makes it so iconic.

"It's largely because of its Art Deco styling and its world-famous international orange color," said Mary Currie, public affairs director for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, the agency that operates the bridge. "That makes it distinct and unique. It stands out with its grace and beauty in a way that no other bridge here in the Bay Area or, in my opinion, around the world stands out."

The Golden Gate, only a few months younger than the Bay Bridge, its cousin to the east, opened to pedestrians on May 27, 1937, and to vehicles one day later. To mark the 75th birthday, San Francisco is throwing a summer-long party, but the big celebration is May 27 and May 28 (Memorial Day).

Next weekend's gala will stretch from Fort Point, which sits under the bridge, along the waterfront through Fisherman's Wharf and onto Pier 39.

"One of the main features is going to be the history tent out on Crissy Field," Shaw said. "That's an 80-foot-by-100-foot, high-topped tent full of graphics that tell the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and artifacts and memorabilia from the Bridge District's collection.

"There's also at Fort Point a wonderful exhibit called 'International Orange: The Bridge Reimagined.' That is an exhibit by a number of artists who are reinterpreting the bridge."

One of the more moving exhibits — "Whose Shoes?" — will remember the more than 1,500 people who have died jumping off the bridge. The display is sponsored by the Bridge Rail Foundation, a group whose goal is to stop suicides on the span.

A film series co-hosted by San Francisco's Walt Disney Family Museum will showcase Hollywood's fascination with the bridge. A summer camp — "Archi-techies" — will let children discover how the bridge was built to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. And the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will serve bridge-themed desserts.

"In a way, I wish I could go back and visit that era," Currie said of the Great Depression, during which San Francisco-area residents approved the risky proposal to build the bridge.

"They voted to back the construction bonds that were eventually floated by Bank of America," she said. "They were voting to risk that toll dollars would pay back those construction bonds. So they were putting up their homes, their vineyards [and] their businesses on the risk that the bridge would bring something. It was a symbol of hope and ingenuity and a vision for the future."

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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