Although I have a had a view of it for the past 20 years, I have never thought much of the Aurora Bridge. Its grey lines fade into the surrounding hills. Growing up in Seattle, the only thing I knew about the bridge was that it was notorious for suicides. A friend walked onto the bridge late one night contemplating jumping. Fortunately, she did not, but many others had. For that reason, I think, subconsciously, I tried not to look at that bridge or think about it very much.

But all that changed when I woke up one morning, a few weeks back, to find the south end of the bridge wrapped, in what looked like the start of a Christo art installation.

It wasn’t. It was a Washington State Department of Transportation wrapping; WSDOT is painting the bridge for the first time in 30 years. And the wrapping is an elaborate catchment system for the toxic lead paint that is being sandblasted off before a more environmentally friendly paint can be applied.

But it got me curious about Christo (why did he wrap things?) and that got me curious about the bridge.

Christo’s most famous for wrapping the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. He wraps things paradoxically to reveal them.

For fun, I try to imagine the Aurora Bridge wrapped à la Christo, in fabric and drawn back like curtains across the lake. In my imagined view, I suddenly see it for the first time. I catch my breath. The bridge’s form – its monumental expanse – it’s startlingly beautiful.

 

Its official name is the George Washington Memorial Bridge, and when it opened on Feb. 22, 1932, to great fanfare, marking the culmination of a year-long, nationwide celebration of events for George Washington’s 200th birthday, it wasn’t just a bridge uniting Seattle – it was a bridge connecting Mexico to Canada. The George Washington Memorial Bridge was the last link in the new US Highway 99, aka the Pacific International Highway, that paralleled the West Coast from Tijuana, Mexico to Vancouver, B.C.

Historians note its opening marked the ascendancy of the automobile in American life because it was the first Seattle bridge without streetcar tracks.

A picture postcard from the time shows the bridge, with a few 1930s cars on it, branching off Queen Anne Hill with grassy knolls on either side, its roadway seemingly stretching into a gentle, enlightened horizon.

But that vision of freedom and calm was short-lived. Just three decades later, US Highway 99 and the George Washington Memorial Bridge would be eclipsed by the I-5 Freeway and the Ship Canal Bridge. In 1967 the highway was decertified, chopped up, and made into State Route 99.

Even before the bridge’s hugely celebrated opening, there was a bad omen, the first suicide, a shoe salesman. It would go on to be known as Seattle’s suicide bridge, the haunted bridge, the bridge with the second most suicides in the country after the Golden Gate in San Francisco (which would also make it third in the world).

Over the years there was a lot of talk over of doing something to prevent the suicides, but no one could agree on exactly what.

At some point, after some 230 jumps, the press stopped reporting on them. There were “wet” jumps and “dry” jumps, the latter ending in Fremont streets and parking lots. Office workers drew their blinds.

By the end of 2006 after a record number of suicides from the bridge (nine when the average had been four a year), the city installed six emergency phones and signs with a suicide hotline number on them. At about the same time FRIENDS (Fremont, Individuals and Employees Nonprofit to Decrease Suicides), a neighborhood group determined to a get a barrier installed also began their efforts. It was a controversial, uphill battle, finally successful in 2011.

With the fence now in place for several years, that sad era of the bridge’s past seems to be receding.

 

But the bridge’s woes aren’t completely over. Today what stands out about the Aurora Bridge is its white-knuckle drive. When it first opened, it was said to be four lanes, but old photos show six lanes, possibly four lanes and two shoulders. At any rate it’s now six narrow lanes. The original speed limit was 35 miles per hour; today it’s 40, and acknowledged to be regularly acceded.

People drive across it on high alert, gripping the steering wheel, as they approach its narrowing lanes and breathe a sigh of relief when they’re past them.

A 2015 fatal accident involving a Ride the Ducks vehicle and a charter bus highlighted how dangerous the bridges narrow lanes are to drive.

 

I wasn’t thinking about the traffic, which from a distance looks like it’s scampering, and not going that fast. I’d never actually walked on the bridge before, and I wondered if it was possible to rediscover any of the bridge’s original glory.

So one sunny day shortly after the catchment wrapping went up, I talked my husband into making a loop hike with me, walking one side of the bridge and then the other, getting the full benefit of the view some 170 feet over Lake Union. It seemed like a good idea at the time, like the kind of walk that should be recommended in a Seattle tour guide.

We parked near the Fremont Troll, making our way past the tourists and found the encouraging but graffiti-tagged sign directing pedestrians up the access stairs to the bridge deck.

Once we reached the top, however, I knew why I’d never heard the walk recommended. The roar of the traffic and the wind as it whizzes by immediately hits you. I was ready to abandon all hope and turn back.

After realizing, OK, we’re fairly safe on the protected sidewalk, where a barrier separated us from the road, the next thing I noticed was the 8-foot 9-inch suicide fence made up of thin bars that surrounds the original 1930s railing.

It was as if we had walked into a time warp and the fence was a force field around the bridge, which was kind of cool. (The juxtaposition is by design; preservationists didn’t want a faux historical look.)

We pushed on, walking single file hugging the railing instinctively.

I was surprised by how low the vintage railing was, too invitingly effortless to swing yourself over, although that is no longer possible due to the barrier. The view through the thin bars was spectacular though.

The emergency phones that were installed in 2006 along with the eye-catching, battered now, suicide hotline signs still dot the way, a reminder of a not too distant past.

There had been talk of closing sidewalk entirely before the fence went up, but due to the treacherous roadway, it is the only safe pathway for bicyclists.

By the time we came to the other pedestrian underpass on the Queen Anne side, we’d abandoned our plan of crossing over. It was just too miserable of a walk. Instead we made our way through Canlis’ parking lot where we ran across a Farmers Market meat vendor, Brent, from Olsen Farms, making a delivery to the restaurant.

After chatting with Brent, we made our way down through the Queen Anne neighborhood to the Fremont Bridge, which was a nice enough walk and much calmer, and we got a close-up view of the WSDOT wrapping, but I found myself missing the bridge’s view.

 

The view from the bridge is grand, and the view of the bridge is also grand once you can get beyond its tragic past.

The Aurora Bridge is a truss-deck bridge (meaning the support is all underneath) and in 1982 was accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of its innovative engineering design.

Architecturally, the bridge is part of the Gothic Revival period, says Susan Boyle, local architect and preservationist. The style was popular at the time the bridge was built and can be seen as well in many of the historic buildings on the University of Washington campus and in the towers of the Montlake Bridge.

The St. John’s Bridge in Portland, Oregon, just a year older than the Aurora, is much more decorative and famously resembles Gothic cathedral arches in its structural supports above and below the bridge deck.

The Aurora Bridge is less overtly decorative and seems to transcend its time, bridging past and future. Seen from a distance, the bridge expresses the verticality seen in Art Deco designs, says Boyle.

The lines and the arches are a nod back to the decade before. The Art Deco appearance stands out even more in fog or, as we had this summer, smoke, when the haze softens and somehow doubles the vertical lines. In the bright daylight, the 1930s bridge is forward-looking, functional, less nostalgic and more modern.

But it too has a Gothic sensibility in its cantilevers spanning the lake, resembling flying buttresses, and in its supports below that soar, like those of the St. John’s Bridge, over Fremont but without the theatrical detailing, more like unfinished cathedral arches.

What’s most interesting about these sorts of bridges, after you view them from afar, says Boyle, is the space they create below them. In Fremont, she adds, you see the bridge as space and that part of it is magical and has an inspirational quality to it.

The Art Deco expression of the bridge stands out in a haze.

 

Aurora suggests something celestial. A friend of mine says she’s heard it was named for the Aurora Borealis, for the way it spans the lake, but from where she doesn’t recall. A WSDOT historian says the bridge is named for Aurora Avenue, and it’s typical that bridges get renamed for the area that’s around them. (As the bridge was originally being designed it was referred to as the Lake Union Bridge.)

Aurora is also the name of the Roman goddess of dawn, and the bridge marked the dawn of the Automobile Age, so maybe it’s a fitting name all around.

There’s glamour and whimsy with the Aurora Bridge, anchored by two Seattle icons like pots of gold on either end of a rainbow — one with a view above, Canlis, and the other with a view below, the Fremont Troll.  The bridge welcomes pedestrians near it if not exactly on it.

WSDOT is painting the bridge now over the next year, and while it will be nice for aesthetics, a spokesperson noted, it’s needed to preserve the bridge. The work will involve wrapping and unwrapping it, revealing the new paint job section by section. The color will be the standard WSDOT gray, the color they use on all their bridges, but maybe it will be enough to make the bridge be seen anew.

Maybe someday the Aurora Bridge will be calmer, fewer lanes (one can dream!). We may never be able to lose the suicide barrier, to protect ourselves from ourselves, but we might gain again a beautiful city walk and view.