SAN FRANCISCO—Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco in 1962. I discovered mine recently while taking a leisurely walk on the city’s legendary Golden Gate Bridge.
Photographed more often than Marilyn Monroe, the Golden Gate Bridge is instantaneously recognized globally as the symbol of San Francisco and as the most stunning port of entry in the world.
According to the San Francisco historian Jim Van Buskirk, the Golden Gate Bridge surpasses the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in being featured prominently in over 70 movies. This love affair with the movies dates back to 1935 with “Stranded,” a drama featuring footage of the bridge under construction.
Glowing with its reddish-orange color—or to be precise, International Orange, the bridge’s official color—the 75-year-old never looked grander or more regal in the early afternoon sun.
The Color Is Born
The Golden Gate Bridge is reddish-orange because Irving F. Morrow (American, 1884–1952), the consulting architect of the Golden Gate Bridge, made the decision. Morrow designed the bridge’s art deco look and in his 1935 report to the bridge’s Board of Directors, made the case for what was considered a wild color in the 1930s.
“The Golden Gate Bridge is to be the longest suspension bridge in the world,” Morrow wrote. “It is one of the greatest monuments of all time. Its unprecedented size and scale call for unique and unconventional treatment. What has been thus played up in form should not be let down in color.”
Morrow took the job of selecting a color for the bridge very seriously. His “Report on Color and Lighting for the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco” communicates his commitment to convince others of the importance of the matter.
Morrow wanted the color to complement the changes of weather of the San Francisco Bay, with its gray fog, the golden-and-green hills, the blue water and sky.
In his report, he proposed: “It is well recognized that the color of a structure has important influence on its appearance and on its relation to its surroundings.
“The Golden Gate Bridge is a scenic feature which demands all possible respect because of (a) its intrinsic beauty; (b) its great renown; and (c) its strong and long-standing sentimental attachment in the minds of inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay region. Poorly chosen color may actually create disharmony between the structure and the site.”
The University of California at Berkeley provides a quick overview of how International Orange was selected for use on the bridge: Chief engineer Joseph Strauss and his colleagues intended to select a paint that would withstand the harsh winds, weather, and the corrosive salt air—constant factors for a bridge that would be located across the Golden Gate.
Following a year of testing paints and colors, the possible choices were carbon black, steel gray, and orange. Some felt that this bridge, like others, should be black, gray, and silver.
Morrow was critical of the three standard colors recommended by the bridge’s Board of Directors: “Black will reduce the scale of the bridge. Gray is not at all distinctive. Silvery—a color more suitable for the dirigible aircraft,” were the architect’s comments.
During construction of the bridge, the reddish-orange color of the primer coat caught Morrow’s eye. It also captivated the local citizens’ enthusiasm. They provided significant public support for the red undercoat used to protect the steel by urging Morrow to make it permanent.
The following letters—each regarding the color of the bridge—were received by Irving Morrow. The majority of the letters are on view at A Wild Flight of the Imagination: The Story of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is on exhibit at the California Historical Society in San Francisco through Oct. 14.
“Of the very limited range of possible colors, there is one which, I feel sure, will bring out the instant beauty of the bridge and at the same time will fit into the landscape. During the construction of the bridge, I was struck by the extraordinary beauty and richness in tone of the red color.
“If a paint of this value were applied, the Golden Gate Bridge would stand out against its surroundings without danger of ruining one of the most beautiful harbor entrances of the world,” wrote E.P. Meinecke, of the Bureau of Plant Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Feb. 23, 1935.
“The directors should not try to be smarter than God,” wrote Maynard Dixon, a 20th-century American artist, March 9, 1935. A California native, Dixon’s body of work focused on the American West. His colorful mural adorns a banquet hall at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco.
Continued on next page: Do you cross the Bay often?