The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color In the 1930s, the now-iconic hue "international orange" was a radical choice, originally meant to serve only as the primer.

The Golden Gate Bridge's Accidental Color

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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.

KATIE SOMERS: Unidentified Woman #1: Ish.


INSKEEP: NPR Special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains just how radical.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Here's the thing. This is a foggy, windy day. What's the point? I can't see the bridge.

MARY CURRIE: Right, but when this fog goes away - you'll 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 there's that tower; not clear yet, but as if you had a really bright orange pastel and you smooched it up - there it goes again.


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.

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: 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.

ROCKY DELLAROCCA: 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 there's fog almost 70 percent of the time. Wind can blow 60 miles an hour. And they're using spray guns.

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. That's why to be a structural steel painter or a bridge painter, you got to be a little off center.

CURRIE: Rocky dreams in international orange.

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


STAMBERG: This is beautiful orange. It's not an aggressive orange...

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

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

DELLAROCCA: ...soft orange, yeah.

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

DELLAROCCA: Dark, there's yellows.

STAMBERG: You can't 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.

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

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


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.


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.

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

STAMBERG: Can you imagine if it were another color?

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.


STAMBERG: No way, indeed.

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.

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.


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

STAMBERG: Soundbite of song, "San Francisco")

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

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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