Art + Design

Q&A with the authors of Alcatraz: History and Design of a Landmark

We’re honored this week to have a Q&A with the authors of the just-released Alcatraz: History and Design of a Landmark, Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel. They provide some of the backstory on why they decided to write a follow-up book to their Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon all about the infamous and beautiful island in the San Francisco Bay.

If you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to win the copies of both Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge that will be rewarded to a randomly selected winner (offer eligible in US and Canada only).


What’s the biggest untruth about the mythic island in the San Francisco Bay that you reveal in the book?
That it was a fearsome, dangerous and life-threatening prison. Prisoners were treated pretty well—they could eat as much as they wanted and always have extra cigarettes. It was more civilized than most people realized. The number one sport was not baseball but bridge. The most popular books circulating from the prison library were on how to play bridge better. Bridge tournaments were relatively common, and a band regularly played.

What led you to want to write (and illustrate) a concise history of what’s possibly the most famous island in the US?
To show that it was more than a prison, that it played a crucial role in the history and defense of the bay. Also to show what Alcatraz has become—a bird refuge and botanical garden as well as a national park. To broaden the understanding of the island and its past.

Was it hard to get special access to the island, and if so, what was the most special area or building you were able to explore?
The most interesting building was not on the island at all but the National Park Service Alcatraz archive located at the Presidio. Photos, records, reports, journals and even diaries revealed the inside story of island life supplemented by government records and architectural drawings.

Was the inspiration for writing Alcatraz a direct result of investigating information for your prior book, Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon?
Partially. It was a fascination with the bay and how it possesses a cultural as well as historical importance. Islands in the bay have a history much greater than what they first represent. To understand one part of bay history you have to know another. To understand the Golden Gate Bridge, you need to know something about the early defensive structure of the bay, the role of the forts, the presence of the army, as well as the history of San Francisco. One is not divorced from the other.

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