Salvaged Steel from Bay Bridge Will Soon Become Art

The program has already allocated steel for six projects — with a second round of applications due in December.

During its lifetime, millions of people drove across the eastern span of the old Bay Bridge, glimpsing its enormous steel girders through car windows. But that was nothing compared to the experience of walking among its newly salvaged beams, laying in a Caltrans yard not far from where it was erected in 1933 — and now is being dismantled.

“Some of the shapes and forms are really, really lovely,” said Leslie Pritchett, leading a group of artists on a tour of the salvaged steel.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A row of newly remediated steel beams salvaged from the eastern span of the old Bay Bridge await their new life as works of public art. (Aug. 18, 2016)

On Tuesday, artists hoping to claim some of that salvaged steel took a tour of some of the 450 tons of metal awaiting its new home. Pritchett of the Oakland Museum of California is leading a new program administered by the museum to help the state distribute the steel to artists across California. The idea is that the metal, which once carried bodies, may now move souls.

“The whole idea is to take pieces of the old Bay Bridge,” Pritchett said, “and salvage them and allow them to have a new life.”

Kristofer Noceda
An artist hoping to claim some of the salvaged steel from the Eastern span of the old Bay Bridge takes a picture during a tour of the materials (Aug. 18, 2016)

The program has already allocated steel for six projects — with a second round of applications due in December.

The newly removed steel bore marks where the dismantlers' cutting torches sliced through, creating a patina in the layers of paint applied over more than a quarter-century. Oakland artist Karen Cusolito darted through the stacks of metal, taking pictures and imagining plans.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A group of artists take a tour of the recently salvaged Bay Bridge steel stored in a Caltrans yard not far from the Bay Bridge. (Aug. 18, 2016)

“I’m an artist who works with salvaged steel,” Cusolito said. “So for me to be surrounded by 450 tons of steel that have been salvaged from the Bay Bridge is just exhilarating for me.”

Cusolito helped organize a community movement that convinced the state to distribute some of the steel to artists. Under the program, the steel must be used for public projects within California. And while the state is covering the cost for the remediation and cleaning of the steel, artists must foot the bill for everything else, including transportation of the beams.

“The challenge artists are facing,” Cusolito said, “is finding the money to put the projects together.”

Artist Graham Prentice is part of a group already selected to receive a portion of the salvaged steel. Prentice said his group plans to build a public structure at the Port of Oakland to welcome truckers, the public and bicyclists. Prentice took so many photos of the girders during the tour, he maxed out the memory in his phone.

“It’s beautiful also to see it in a state of disassembly,” Prentice said, standing in the shadow of a heap of steel.

A week ago, Caltrans workers marked a milestone in the demolition by lowering the span’s largest remaining truss onto a barge to be hauled away. The total removal is expected to last into 2018.

“We’re very excited to know that in one instance we’re bringing down the bridge,” said Bay Bridge spokeswoman Leah Robinson-Leach, “but through the art program the bridge will live on.”

Pritchett said the steel will go to a number of art projects ranging from massive installations to smaller pieces.

“Some of them will be turned into sculptures,” Pritchett said, “some of them will be turned into buildings and other structures.”

Cusolito said while organizing the artists' campaign, she received a letter from a young man hoping to secure just a small amount of the steel.

“A person wrote and said I want only enough steel from the Bay Bridge to create a picture frame for my grandfather who helped build the bridge,” Cusolito said.

The museum said once the steel is cleaned, it will begin getting it into the hands and studios of artists — with hopes that the old obsolete bridge will find value in a new life.

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