Strands of History | Creating art from bridge cables

Bob and Mary Zimmerman, owners and artists of Strands of History. | Priya Hutner

Tall suspender cables twist and turn and sway in the wind towering over the turbulent waters below. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, an architectural masterpiece, stretches across the San Francisco Bay and welcomes millions in and out of the bay. In 1969, the cables began to corrode. The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District determined it needed to replace the suspender cables. The project took place from 1970 to 1976.

Mary Zimmerman at work. | Courtesy Strands of History

In a warehouse, 206 miles away in Kings Beach, Bob and Mary Zimmerman, owners of Strands of History, are suited up in blue coveralls cutting suspender cables into 4-inch pieces as I enter their shop. Lengths of suspender cables that were once part of the Golden Gate Bridge line the shop floor.

The Zimmermans are both former scientists from San Francisco; who now live in Ward Valley on the West Shore. They used to work in biopharmaceutical drug development and now they work with 4,000 feet of used suspender cables.

Their late friend Tom Piatkowski collected the cables originally from crews working on the Golden Gate Bridge project and started cutting them up as gifts.

The group designs and creates custom pieces of furniture and light fixtures with Golden Gate Bridge pieces of history. The art they create is masterful and beautiful.

“Our friend Tom said, ‘I’ve got these cables from the Golden Gate Bridge.’ He got them from a guy that took them down from the bridge. I asked what he was doing with all the cable and he said, ‘All we do is we cut them up in little pieces and the bridge district gives the pieces away as a retirement gift’,” Bob recalls.

The Zimmerman’s saw potential to create art pieces and mementos from the cables, which led to a partnership with Piatkowski.

Pieces of the Golden Gate Bridge cable. | Courtesy Strands of History

“We thought that we would just direct Tom’s people, sit back and have these grand ideas,” he said. But, when Piatkowski died, the Zimmerman’s decided to pick up where he left off and moved the operation to Kings Beach.

“We took apart every piece of equipment and put it back together, upgraded it. And it took us about half a year” said Mary, who took a series of welding classes to learn how to work with the metal. One class she took was at Truckee Roundhouse with artist Fred Besch who helped her hone her welding craft.

Table made with leg posts from Golden Gate Bridge cables. | Courtesy Strands of History

Mary hands me one of the pieces. I turn the twisted piece of 4-inch orange cable in my hand. It’s capped with shiny silver metal on each end and heavy for its size. I felt like I was holding a piece of history.

Across the room looms The Big Thing, a machine that bands the suspender cable together. Each step of the way, the Zimmerman’s learned their craft through people in the community and through lots of reading.

“We use nontoxic, latex face paint. We actually use the exact same paint (color and brand) as the Golden Gate Bridge. The cables are galvanized and have a zinc coating. When they were first put up in 1935, they used lead paint,” Bob said, explaining that they sandblast off the zinc and lead particles before working with the metal.

The Zimmerman’s found partnership and collaboration with blacksmiths Jessie and Aaron Bushey of Bushey Ironworks and woodworker Andy Cline of Roundwood Furniture, both of whom have studios in Kings Beach. The group designs and creates custom pieces of furniture and light fixtures with Golden Gate Bridge pieces of history. The art they create is masterful and beautiful. For instance, a coffee table collaboration called, The Presidio, featured a wood top with table legs created from the cables.

In addition to making mementos for The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy gift shop, the Zimmerman’s creations are available online on the Strands of History Web site in both 4-inch and 12-inch sizes.

The Zimmerman’s are in the process of creating a public art installment in Tahoe so that everyone can experience history through art and architecture

What touches Mary and Bob Zimmerman are the stories that their art evokes. People tell them stories about family members who had worked on the bridge or who have personal connections to the bridge. Each memento holds something dear, a memory, a piece of history that is San Francisco. |