The first time Tom Loughlin saw the old eastern span of the Bay Bridge he was on a cruise for first-year law students at UC Berkeley. A classmate told him she preferred it to the other bridges because “there was nothing fancy about it,” Loughlin recalls 25 years later. “It wasn’t painted orange. It just looked like an erector set built for a specific purpose.”
That comment outlasted anything Loughlin was to learn at Boalt Hall or clerking for a federal judge or in five years of private practice as a Minneapolis trial attorney. He eventually scrapped the law to become a sculptor working in scrap iron — 30 tons of decommissioned steel from the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, to be specific.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, on the western shore of Treasure Island, Loughlin plans to introduce “Signal,” a 14-sided polygon topped by an original red signal light that had served as a beacon since the bridge opened in 1936.
The ring-shaped “Signal” is public art that is open whenever the bridge itself is open, and anyone who misses the old steel cage above the car deck is invited to pull off at Treasure Island and come touch its skin pimpled in rivets. Or climb up and stand on it to enhance the view of the San Francisco skyline. The piece is interactive and indestructible, and serves as an excellent wind block.
“It’s a place to come and think about the history of the Bay Bridge and think about the place where we are on Earth,” says Loughlin, 50, who got his master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute after he quit law. “Something we’re all faced with as human beings is, ‘How do you define a narrative out of all the events that happen in the Bay Area?’”
The event that brought him all this steel was the Loma Prieta earthquake 30 years ago. The truss bridge east of Treasure Island was determined to be bland compared to the western span and inadequate by seismic standards.
After the new white suspension bridge opened in 2013, the 80-year-old gray framework of the Bay Bridge was left dangling over the water and plainly visible from the new bridge. Chronicle architecture critic John King argued for leaving part of it there, but it vanished bit by bit.
This sparked controversy, and a petition was mounted to save the eastern span, garnering 2,000 signatures. The movement reached the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, and $2.2 million was budgeted to save 450 tons of steel for artistic interpretation. Sections of the truss, top chords, signal lights, rivets, eyebars and piers where hauled to the construction yard and sandblasted to remove lead paint.
“The idea was that this was a public amenity then and it should be a public amenity now,” says Karin Betts, public information officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
TBPOC hired the Oakland Museum of California to administer the program and send out a request for proposals. After three rounds of applications, 13 artists were granted use of the steel in 2017. And that’s all they were granted. They were not given any funding, and they had to pick up the steel from the Oakland salvage yard.
Use of the bridge steel was not restricted to the Bay Area. The bridge had belonged to the state of California, and any California artist was eligible to apply for a piece of it. The first two sculptures using bridge steel have already been placed on display. One is an “art gate” in Joshua Tree National Park and the other is a railroad platform for the children’s train at Truckee River Regional Park.
In the Bay Area, the Elsewhere Philatelic Society used a piece of the bridge for a performance art piece, but “Signal” is the first installation built to last.
Loughlin’s budget was “considerable” (being lawyerly vague, he only revealed that it was “six figures”). He raised it privately, hitting up his former law colleagues.
The bridge pieces he selected were three 10-ton girders from the top chord, or the angled upper edge of a truss. In July 2017, it took a crane to lift them onto three flatbed trucks. The trucks then convoyed over the Sierra and over the Rockies to Denver for fabrication of the artwork.
It came back this month on two trucks and had to be bolted together, not welded, so that it can more easily be disassembled.
The art is there for at least three years, but it may be in the way of progress as the island is developed with high-rise waterfront housing. There are already detours for road construction, and you have to circle the island to get back to the northern waterfront. “Signal” is at the south end of the promenade, across from a pop-up restaurant and playground.
Loughlin is expected to be on hand from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, but there won’t be any speeches or platitudes. Asked to describe the meaning of “Signal,” he says, “If I could tell you what it means, I would not have had to build it.”
Loughlin hopes that in five years “Signal” will become part of the landscape, appreciated enough that developers will work around it.
“My job,” he says, “is to try to make it permanent.”
“Signal”: Public art. Unveiling at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22. 699 Avenue of the Palms, Treasure Island, S.F. signalsf.com