“I used to live on Telegraph Hill, and people would come by and ask ‘Why is that there?’ about Coit Tower, and, ‘Where’d the parrots come from?’” says Peterson, 80, who was born in Berkeley and has lived in The City for 55 years. “So I got to thinking this could be the focus of the book, but not a straight history book.”
The new book, “Why is That Bridge Orange? San Francisco for the Curious,” has 86 chapters, each featuring one question and answer, accompanied by plentiful photos.
“I didn’t want to include anything you can’t see now,” Peterson says. “I didn’t want to take a picture of a Walgreens and say a great brothel used to be there.”
The book debunks many myths and mysteries. For example, Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is not the most crooked street in The City. Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets has an even more zigzagged series of switchbacks. And the reason Lombard is so curvy is not simply for show. It was designed that way in 1922 to accommodate Russian Hill’s 27 percent grade.
Peterson, who taught English in San Francisco public schools, including 15 years at Lowell High School (one of his students was “Lemony Snicket” author Daniel Handler), took four years to photograph the sites and write the book, which is filled with information from at least 10 years’ worth of newspaper clippings.
After he retired, he tossed everything from his large collection of odd news items except those of San Francisco interest, which were fertile ground for initial research on the book.
The focus is on stories, not just facts. Peterson adds: “To be a good teacher you have to develop a style that keeps the students’ eyes from glazing over. With every sentence I try to make something interesting, and my experience as a teacher definitely helped me.”
While keeping his prose trimmed to the necessities, Peterson’s chapters unravel the origins of San Francisco topless dancing (a first for the nation at the time), martinis, steam brewing, the flags at the Fairmont Hotel, the bison in Golden Gate Park and the ruins at the former Sutro Baths.
And the reason the Golden Gate Bridge is International Orange? The answer is outlined in Chapter 36. Irving Morrow, the architect who designed the bridge, saw a painter putting an orange undercoat on a tower, and decided he wanted that hue for the entire bridge, because it complemented both the green of the Marin hills and the Bay’s prevalent gray fog.
Why Is That Bridge Orange?
By Art Peterson
Published by Inquiring Minds Productions
Available at local independent bookstores and at http://whyisthatbridgeorange.com