12:01am

Tue April 26, 2011
U.S.

The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

Originally published on Wed October 22, 2014 12:48 pm

You'd think the color of the most photographed bridge in the world would have a more exciting name than "international orange." Something like "vermilion" or "terra cotta" or "burnt sienna" might seem more appropriate.

Whatever you call it, it's the vivid, unmistakable color of the Golden Gate Bridge, which turns 75 next year. But back in the 1930s, the now-iconic hue was a radical choice.

'Unique And Unconventional Treatment'

First, to set the record straight, the bridge is named not for its hue, but for its location. It's built above the Golden Gate Strait, the entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean.

The color came about thanks to Irving Morrow, the Golden Gate's consulting architect, who noticed the striking reddish-orange primer painted on some of the steel.

Morrow designed the bridge's lighting and its art-deco styling. He also championed the unusual color. Most bridges were gray, silver or black. It was expected that the Golden Gate Bridge would follow suit.

"He had to convince the Department of War, the permitting agency at the time, that the largest suspension span ever built at the time [should] have this wild crazy color," says Golden Gate Bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie.

The bridge's construction began in 1933. Two years later, Morrow made the case for the wild color in the 29-page document, Report on Color and Lighting, which he presented to the bridge's board of directors.

"The Golden Gate Bridge," Morrow wrote, "is one of the greatest monuments of all time. Its unprecedented size and scale, along with its grace of form and independence of conception, all call for unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view. What has been thus played up in form should not be let down in color."

The primer would need some added tones, but Morrow felt it was an ideal complement to the gray fog, the golden and green hills, the blue water and sky.

Who Paints The Bridge?

There are more than 10 million square feet of steel to paint on the bridge. It's constantly touched up, not just to keep up the color but to protect it from the salty weather.

Currie says one of the big myths is that the bridge is painted from one end to the other rather than continually touched up.

Paint superintendent Rocky Dellarocca jokes: "Yeah, you start at one end, and when you get to the other end, you retire." That's how long it would take.

Dellarocca spent two decades painting the bridge. Now he oversees some 30 bridge painters.

"Rocky dreams in international orange," Currie says with a laugh.

Painting the bridge is tough work. Only rain stops Rocky and his crew. But the bridge is wrapped in fog almost 70 percent of the time. And the winds can blow 60 mph — which can cause problems because workers usually use spray guns.

"There's some places it's so windy you have to hold the spray gun next to the steel — otherwise the paint will blow off at a 90-degree angle. That's why, to be a structural steel painter — bridge painter — you've got to be a little off-center," Dellarocca says.

A Special Brew

Buckets of paint are stored in an underground bunker near the bridge. Dellarocca estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 gallons are used yearly.

You can't just walk into a paint store and buy the Golden Gate Bridge color. You may find something called "international orange," but it's not this international orange. This is a special mixture formulated just for the Golden Gate.

"Over the years, I've had so many people call me," Dellarocca says. "They want to get this color because they want to paint their bikes, the trim on their house, their fence, their dog house. They love the bridge."

Dellarocca spent a good deal of time mailing chip samples to anyone who asked. Now you can find the exact paint mixture on the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District's website.

Color? I Can't See The Bridge!

San Francisco is regularly wrapped in the kind of fog poet Carl Sandburg described as coming "on little cat feet." When that happens, it's hard to see the color of the paint on the bridge. The cables curve upward but go nowhere, disappearing into the fog.

"But when this fog goes away," Currie says, "you'll see the beautiful Marin Headlands and golden hills as they reflect against this beautiful international orange."

It's an understatement to say that Currie and Dellarocca take great pride in watching over this bridge.

"People took care of this place before I got here, since 1937," Dellarocca says. "I'm going to take care of it, and when I retire, someone's going to come right behind me and keep taking care of this bridge."

Can he imagine the bridge any other color?

"No, it's the most beautiful bridge in the world," he says. "The Navy wanted to paint it black and yellow so it was more visible, but the [Golden Gate] Bridge District said no way."

No way, indeed.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There is nothing secret about what lies a few hours south of California gold country, one of the most photographed structures in the world.

Ms. KATIE SOMERS (College Student): I like it 'cause it's orange. That's Boise State colors, orange and blue. And it's orange, kind of.

Unidentified Woman #1: Ish.

Ms. SOMERS: Ish.

INSKEEP: That's college student Katie Somers visiting San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, which turns 75 next year. That orange-ish color was radical for the 1930s.

NPR Special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains just how radical.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Orange-ish is certainly more fun than the real name of the bridge's color - international orange. Vermillion would be better, terra cotta, burnt sienna. Whatever you call it, it is the vivid, iconic, unmistakable color of the Golden Gate Bridge.

This particular day, on the bridge, with spokesperson Mary Currie, we are enwrapped by a cloak that regularly visits San Francisco on little cat feet.

Here's the thing. This is a foggy, windy day. Whats the point? I cant see the bridge.

Ms. MARY CURRIE (Spokeswoman, Golden Gate Bridge District): Right, but when this fog goes away youll see the beautiful Marin Headlands and golden hills as they reflect against this beautiful international orange.

STAMBERG: Here it comes. Look at that, the fog is moving and theres that tower; not clear yet, but as if you had a really bright orange pastel and you smooched it up - there it goes again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: The color goes, comes, goes. And according to Marie Currie, was kind of an accident for which the bridge's consulting architect gets the credit.

Ms. CURRIE: It was Irving Morrow that saw the primer that was on some of the steel when it arrived here, reddish orange. And he had to convince the Department of War, who was the permitting agency at the time, have the longest suspension span ever built at the time to have this wild, crazy color.

STAMBERG: Because bridges were gray, black or silver, not orange-ish. During construction, Irving Morrow noticed how the primer grew luminous in the shifting atmosphere of San Francisco Bay. In 1935 he wrote: The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the greatest monuments of all time. What has been thus far played up in form should not be let down in color.

For paint, the primer color would need some added tones, but it was just right with the gray fog, the golden and green hills, the blue water and, when you can see it, sky.

Mr. ROCKY DELLAROCCA (Paint Superintendent): When I come to work every day, my heart goes like this when I see the Golden Gate Bridge.

STAMBERG: Rocky Dellarocca has painted the Golden Gate for more than two decades. Now he oversees the bridge's 28 painters. Tough work, only rain stops them. But theres fog almost 70 percent of the time. Wind can blow 60 miles an hour. And they're using spray guns.

Mr. DELLAROCCA: There's some places out here where you're painting out in the wind that, you know, it's so windy that you have to hold the spray gun right next to the steel, otherwise the paint will blow off at a 90 degree angle. Thats why to be a structural steel painter or a bridge painter, you got to be a little off center.

Ms. CURRIE: Rocky dreams in international orange.

STAMBERG: My dream at that moment is to get out of the wind, fog and cold. We head down to a storeroom full of buckets.

Going to guess, there's orange paint in there.

Rocky Dellarocca dabs the famous color on my finger.

You know what? It feels just like paint. But look how pretty it is on my finger.

Mr. DELLAROCCA: Yeah.

STAMBERG: This is beautiful orange. Its not an aggressive orange...

Mr. DELLAROCCA: No, it's a very...

STAMBERG: ...its subtle, it's got...

Mr. DELLAROCCA: ...soft orange, yeah.

STAMBERG: It's got browns in it or some blues...

Mr. DELLAROCCA: Dark, there's yellows.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

You cant go to a paint store and buy the Golden Gate Bridge color for your boudoir. You may find something called international orange. But it's not this international orange. This one is mythic. Another myth is about applying the paint.

Ms. CURRIE: They start at one end and go to the other end every year, and then turn around and go back - not.

Mr. DELLAROCCA: No. I always tell them you start at one end, and when you get to the other end, you retire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: That's how long it would take?

Mr. DELLAROCCA: Yeah.

STAMBERG: More than 10 million square feet of steel get touched up continually year round. But not on this windy, wet day.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

STAMBERG: We stood on the bridge one last time, hoping the fog would clear -but no. We could see the vermillion cables curving upward, but going nowhere disappearing through the fog. Thrilling, really.

Mr. DELLAROCCA: It's the most beautiful bridge in the world.

STAMBERG: Can you imagine if it were another color?

Mr. DELLAROCCA: No. The Navy wanted to have it paint it black and yellow, so it was more visible. But the Bridge District said, no way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: No way, indeed.

Mr. JERRY BURKHOFF: To me, color doesn't matter.

STAMBERG: Well, there's always a critic. New Yorker Jerry Burkhoff is visiting Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.

Mr. BURKHOFF: Any color you want to schmear it, it's great. Gray would be great.

STAMBERG: Well, good enough for New York bridges. But not this one, which I, growing up in New York, always thought was the color of gold. The Golden Gate Bridge is named not for its hue, but for its location. It is built above the Golden Gate Strait, that legendary passage from the Pacific Ocean into the San Francisco Bay.

(Soundbite of song, "San Francisco")

Ms. JEANETTE MCDONALD (Actor): (Singing) San Francisco, open your golden gate. You let no stranger wait...

STAMBERG: Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

Soundbite of song, "San Francisco")

Ms. MCDONALD: (Singing) ...outside your door. San Francisco...

INSKEEP: Indeed, she is. And you can watch Susan's narrated slideshow of the Golden Gate Bridge with photos past and present at NPR.org.

We wanted to hear about bridge you love so we put out a call on Facebook, and here are some of the replies:

Kimber Smith Fiddler has fond memories from Martin's Bridge in New South Wales, Australia. It's only a small bridge, he wrote, but it's got character and I know every bump, and going over it means going home.

Ryan Griffey(ph) enjoys the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, not so much for the bridge per se, but for whats under it - an 18-foot high sculpture of a troll.

And Leslie Potts treasures the swinging bridge that dangles between rock formations at a high altitude at Rock City Gardens at Lookout Mountain on the border between Georgia and Tennessee. She says: You can make kids splat themselves in the face with ice cream while screaming their heads off in delight.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.