For nearly 80 years, the old Eastern span of the Bay Bridge extended from Oakland to Treasure Island, but in its afterlife, its steel pieces are now reaching across California as the materials are in more than a dozen public art projects.
Oakland artist Katy Boynton was one of 15 California-based artists who received an allotment of the salvaged steel set-aside for art projects when the bridge was dismantled, making way for a sleek new bridge.
Inside her studio space in Oakland’s American Steel building, Boynton and a team of volunteers have been busy grinding and hacking at her award of 69 tons of steel.
“How many millions of people have driven over this to and from their lives every day,” Boynton said recently, beaming at the stack of steel beams occupying a formidable corner of her space.
Hornblower Cruises commissioned Boynton to transform the steel into new infrastructure for its Pier 3 location in San Francisco. For the project she’s building a series of towers, barriers, and even a large drape of wind chimes as an ode to a similar feature of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.
“It’s the best use of this metal when they took it down,” Boynton said, “instead of just recycling all of it somewhere else, to be giving it to artists to use in a different way.”
Hornblower’s pier is moored with a pair of giant paddlewheel boats as well as several other passenger boats. The new steel pieces will help direct passengers to their respective vessels. But they’ll also pay homage to Treasure Island and that big steel bridge looming just off in the distance.
“We think the metal makes a very strong statement and will allow us to tell the story of the Bay Bridge,” said Joe Wyman of Hornblower.
The recycled steel trusses, inbrued with rivets and eight decades of wear, is finding similar use in projects from the Bay Area to Tahoe to Joshua Tree where artists are building a gate for an arts center.
Artist Sean Paul Lorentz is constructing a steel sculpture on the Petaluma River. Artist Tom Loughlin is creating a sculpture for Treasure Island that will also be a sound sculpture. Anton Standteiner will use the steel to build a railroad platform for a miniature riding railroad at Truckee Donner Parks.
Boynton said the historic Eastern span, which famously partially collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, is infused with a vast history that includes a deep sense of responsibility
“There was something else I could feel in my gut that I couldn’t quite place,” Boynton said. “And after awhile I realized ‘Oh, I am literally feeling the weight and magnitude of how important this steel is.’”
For Boynton’s volunteer Anthony James, working on the steel project is full-circle journey. He was one of six union iron-workers who dismantled the original East span.
“You could say I’m pretty attached to the steel,” James said. “Not only my blood, sweat and tears tearing it down — I get to put it all back up.”
Inside the dim warehouse-turned-art studio, sparks leapt in every direction as Boynton and her crew readied the steel pieces for the next phase of welding into new shapes and angles. The smell of burning steel permeated the air as Boynton bounded from her tiny office past the pile of antiquated steel preparing to begin its new life — bridging the past into the future.