SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ With grandiose plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge bogged down in controversy, a local author and a history buff have dared question who actually designed the span.

Was it Joseph Baermann Strauss, the project's chief civil engineer, whose statue stands at the suspension bridge's south anchorage? Or was it Charles Alton Ellis, a little-known professor of engineering?

On Monday, a group of legal and historical buffs calling themselves the Court of Historical Review met in a light-hearted lunch session to ponder the issue, and ruled against retired newspaper reporter Russell Cone and author John Van der Zee.

The two contend the soft-spoken Ellis designed the graceful, rust-red span that links San Francisco with Marin County and serves as gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

But Municipal Judge George Choppelas, who ruled for the moot court, said he would ''allow the image of the legend of Joseph B. Strauss to remain'' but did not reject the challengers' contention.

''There's been a lot of documentary evidence presented here today that Charles Ellis did have a big hand in designing the Golden Gate Bridge,'' the judge said after a 40-minute hearing in the all-volunteer court.

''But we must remember that it was Joseph B. Strauss' bridge. He was the man who pushed (for) it, he was the man who got it constructed.''

Cone said he couldn't disagree with the open-ended finding from the court, which also has considered such issues as whether Babe Ruth ''called'' his famous World Series home run against the Chicago Cubs more than half a century ago.

''We don't want to take credit away from Mr. Strauss, who was the abiding thrust and genius in making the project happen,'' Cone said just before the hearing. ''But it was Charley Ellis who, in seven or eight months in 1930, produced the blueprint for the magnificent, 4,200-foot-lon g span we see today.''

Strauss, the chief civil engineer for the bridge, headed a 15-year crusade to raise money and support for the project, an engineering marvel of its day.

But Van der Zee testified that Ellis' design was chosen after Strauss' blueprint for a combination suspension-drawbridge was rejected as shoddy. ''Had it been built, it probably would have been blown apart in some of the high winds we've had,'' he said.

Construction began in 1933 and the 9,266-foot bridge, with its 4,200-foot main span, opened on May 28, 1937.

Ellis' signature appeared on all bridge drawings and he was credited as the designer in Strauss' official 1930 report, the writers said. Ellis became something of a celebrity in the Bay area.

''By Christmas of 1931 this was beginning to apparently grate on the ego of Mr. Strauss, so he dismissed him,'' Cone said. ''Thereafter, the mention of Mr. Ellis' name disappeared entirely from any mention of the bridge project.''

Ellis took a teaching job at Purdue University until his retirement and died in 1949.

The two writers propose that a striking circular steel arch on the San Francisco end of the bridge be named for Ellis.

A more urgent priority for civic leaders and residents is the bridge's golden anniversary celebration in May, which has been plagued by controversy over how big it should be.

Proposed a year ago as a $21 million bash, including $11 million for a museum, the gala has been scaled back to about $3 million, with the assumption that private donors will foot the bill. Of that total, $1 million is to be used to permenantly light the bridge.

A plan to close the bridge to automobiles during the festivities was quashed by residents fearful of a nightmarish traffic jam. A ''dawn bridge walk'' is still being debated.

Current plans, pending donations, call for an air show, regatta, procession of vintage cars, fireworks, and an open-air concert featuring Huey Lewis and the News, the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco Symphony and Tony Bennett.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein says the city can't take control of the controversial gala because the bridge is under the jurisdiction of the independent Golden Gate Bridge District.

''The celebration is going to happen one way or another,'' she said Monday. ''I'd worry more about fog than anything else.''