Tue April 26, 2011

The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

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 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.