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The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

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The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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?


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

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.

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