Recently, I have visited three places in San Francisco which are geographically close to each other, and together, make a statement about the temporary nature of everything people build, and how deal with it.
The first one I visited (recently) was the Golden Gate Bridge, shortly after reading Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. As the title implies, the writer is a big fan of the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes on at length about how awesome the bridge is. However, he is also a historian, and he knows that all great monuments are destined to become ruins. The Golden Gate Bridge narrowly avoided destruction a couple times already, is in a major earthquake zone, and requires high levels of uninterrupted maintenance to remain structurally sound. The writer of the book admits that the Golden Gate Bridge will last at most a few centuries. In other words, the Golden Gate Bridge is mortal. The writer finds this romantic – he imagines how future generations may marvel at the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering how the bridge was during its era of glory.
Meanwhile, that future can already be found at Sutro Baths, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, and for over seventy years it was the largest glass structure in San Francisco, as well as one of the city’s icons. However, over the decades it fell into decline, starting with financial problems, which led to the building being neglected, then abandoned, and in the 1960s, destroyed.
Today, Sutro Baths is San Francisco’s greatest ruin, and is popular with sightseers. As a child, I believed it was the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse (I did not understand at the time that the Roman empire had been on an entirely different continent). During my recent visit, some children passed by and one said that it was a ruin of the Aztec empire. The ruins deteriorate every year, and as time goes by, the remains of the baths will erode and become unrecognizable.
The Golden Gate Bridge is almost as old as Sutro Baths was when the building was destroyed, but I expect it will have many more decades of service. However, some day, one way or another, the Golden Gate will meet the same fate as Sutro Baths, and be a even more spectacular ruin until the forces of wipe the traces of its existence off the face of the earth.
Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts. As a young child, I was convinced that the palace was an ancient Greek ruin, just as I had once believed that Sutro Baths were the ruins of ancient Roman baths. When my parents told me that it was not, that the Palace of Fine Arts had been built in 1915, I did not believe them. It looked just like the pictures from books about ancient Greece and Rome! Of course, it was no accident that it looked like a Classical Greco-Roman building. It was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), and is the one building from that world’s fair which still stands today in its original location.
2015 was the 100 year anniversary of the PPIE, and I attended one of the events celebrating the anniversary – specifically, a lecture about the closing of the fair. Even while the fair was open, a movement arose to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts, and it is thanks to those ordinary people that the Palace of Fine Arts has been preserved until the present day. There were people who wanted then entire fair, not just the Palace of Fine Arts, to be preserved, but it was impractical. The PPIE was built with the intention of being temporary, and it had been built accordingly.
Many people came to the closing of the PPIE, and there was much sadness as a source of much pride and joy in San Francisco came to the end. However, as the lecturer pointed out, the end of the PPIE was a planned end. The people of San Francisco had a chance to say good-bye, and it was dismantled in an organized fashion, not in the midst of a traumatic crisis. 1915 was less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire which had destroyed much of San Francisco, and the lecturer claimed that taking down the PPIE on their terms and not the terms of a disaster helped the people of San Francisco heal a bit more from the trauma of 1906.
And a hundred years later, the Palace of Fine Arts still stands, having outlasted Sutro Baths and lasting long enough to co-exist with the Golden Gate Bridge. Heck, it is also a physical mark that, over a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, bits of ancient Greek and Roman culture continue to be part of the lives of the living, and is a promising sign that bits of our own civilization may continue to be with the living long after our own fall.
Life is fleeting, and everything humans build is also fleeting. It is better to accept that, as the people accepted the mortal nature of the PPIE while they held onto the Palace of Fine Arts and celebrated the hundred-year anniversary in 2015. People also accept the fall of Sutro Baths, for most visitors would rather leave the ruins as they are rather than try to reconstruct the baths. In the present state of Sutro Baths I see the future of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet planning for the inevitable decline and fall can greatly reduce the pain. And maybe the best of what our present civilization has to offer can be preserved far beyond its probable lifetime, just as the Palace of Fine Arts outlasted the PPIE by a hundred years and counting.
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