Why is the Golden Gate Bridge Orange?

International Orange, the color chosen for the Golden Gate Bridge, is a perfect complement to the warm tones of the surrounding hills of Marin. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
International Orange, the color chosen for the Golden Gate Bridge, is a perfect complement to the warm tones of the surrounding hills of Marin. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.

When driving across the Golden Gate Bridge how often have you asked yourself “Why is the Golden Gate orange?” Or, “Why is an orange bridge called the “Golden Gate”? The answer lies in Istanbul and in an architect named Irving Morrow.

 

The Golden Gate Is Not a Bridge, It’s a Strait

 

The Golden Gate Bridge is named after the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, which is a narrow passage of water connecting two large areas of water, otherwise known as a strait. This stretch of water was named “Chrysopylae” or Golden Gate in 1846 by Army Captain John C. Fremont because it reminded him of a strait in an Istanbul harbor called Chrysoceras, or Golden Horn. When the construction of the bridge began in 1933, it took on the name of the strait.

The most recognizable straight in the world: The Golden Gate of San Francisco, August 2006.  Photo courtesy of  NASA.
The most recognizable strait in the world: the Golden Gate of San Francisco, August 2006. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Many people were concerned that a bridge spanning the wide Golden Gate Strait would mar the beauty of the bay.  Irving Morrow, the project’s consulting architect who designed the lighting and art-deco styling of the bridge, took the people’s concerns seriously and thought long and hard about the right color for the 4,200 feet of suspended steel.

But what color would add, not detract, beauty to the bay and do justice to such an impressive architectural feat?

 

The Chosen Color: International Orange

 

Several colors were considered for the Golden Gate Bridge. Among them were black (Morrow thought it would diminish the bridge’s size), silver (more well-suited for a dirigible), gray (too drab for this marvel of engineering), and the worst by far … black and yellow stripes (the U.S. Navy’s preference for visibility). Morrow knew that none of these options would do justice to the world’s longest suspension bridge.

In order to be visible to ships, the U.S. Navy wanted the Golden Gate Bridge covered in yellow and black stripes! Photo courtesy of  Official U.S. Navy Page.  (October 13, 2011)
In order to be visible to ships, the U.S. Navy wanted the Golden Gate Bridge covered in yellow and black stripes! Photo courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Page. (October 13, 2011)

Finally, the perfect color presented itself when Morrow noticed one of the bridge’s painters applying an orangish primer to one of the towers. The vermilion orange went well with the surrounding Marin hills and was a stark contrast to the gray fog that enveloped the bridge almost daily. The community echoed Morrow’s preference as well. As the orange primer covered more of the bridge, local citizens wrote eloquent letters to Morrow, emphasizing the area’s natural beauty and pleading that the final coat of paint match that of the undercoat. Morrow prepared a 29-page report, “The Report on Color and Lighting,” to convince the bridge’s Board of Directors to paint the bridge “International Orange.”

His report underscores the natural beauty of the area and thus the importance of choosing exactly the right color for the bridge:

“The Golden Gate [Strait] is a scenic feature which demands all possible respect because of (a) its intrinsic beauty; (b) its great renown; and (c) its strong long-standing sentimental attachment in the minds of inhabitants of the San Francisco Bay region. Many people, sincerely believing that a bridge must of necessity mar this landscape, opposed bridging the Golden Gate for no other reason. Poorly chosen color may actually create disharmony between the structure and the site.”

Luckily, Morrow succeeded in winning support for his daring color choice. While this stunning art deco suspension bridge is no longer the world’s longest, it now holds the title of the world’s most photographed. This is not hard to believe if you’ve ever found yourself catching your breath at the sight of the bridge peeking out above a thick layer of fog, the bold orange brush strokes of color in bright contrast to the cold, gray sky.

 

Imagine how hard it would be to see the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog if it were gray (the second color choice) and not orange! Photo courtesy of  Photo courtesy of  Frank Kovalcheck.  (May 31, 2010)
Imagine how hard it would be to see the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog if it were gray (the second color choice) and not orange! Photo courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck. (May 31, 2010)

How to Maintain 10 Million Square Feet of Paint

 

If you grew up in California, you’ve probably heard that the Golden Gate Bridge is repainted from end-to-end every year. Well, this mind boggling rumor is nothing more than just that  a rumor. In an article on NPR superintendent Rocky Dellaroccato joked, “Yeah, you start at one end, and when you get to the other end, you retire.” We are talking about 10 million square feet of steel after all! The paint does require routine touch-ups on a continual basis by a team of 34 painters and 16 ironworkers. (The ironworkers move along with the painting crew, removing pieces of steel to make painting possible and replacing parts as needed.) These touch-ups require 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of International Orange every year.

Touch-ups on the Golden Gate Bridge require 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of International Orange paint every year. Photo courtesy of  Anita Dikinme.   (Dec 19, 2005)
Touch-ups on the Golden Gate Bridge require 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of International Orange paint every year. Photo courtesy of Anita Dikinme. (Dec 19, 2005)

 

How To Get Your Hands on a Can of International Orange

GGBridge_orange_300

There is enough International Orange paint for everyone if you’re as smitten with the color as the rest of the world. So many people have asked for a paint sample over the years that it can now be found on the Highway and Transportation District’s website. Just give your local paint store these instructions: CMYK colors are: C= Cyan: 0%, M =Magenta: 69%, Y =Yellow: 100%, K = Black: 6%.

Now the next time you’re driving across the famous Golden Gate Bridge, you can impress your passengers by telling them about the strait in Istanbul and how the color was chosen because an architect and local citizens liked the orange hue of the bridge’s primer. Oh and don’t forget to mention that we should all be grateful to Irving Morrow for ensuring the bridge did not end up covered in black and yellow stripes!



  1. Sources Used

    • Why Is That Bridge Orange? San Francisco for the Curious. Art Peterson. Inquiring Minds Productions; 2013.
    • The Golden Gate Bridge’s Accidental Color. Susan Stamberg. The NPR Website; April 26, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/04/26/135150942/the-golden-gate-bridges-accidental-color
    • The Golden Gate Bridge Report on Color and Lighting. Golden Gate Bridge Website; April 6, 1935. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/documents/ReportColorLighting.pdf
    • What is a Name — The Golden Gate? Golden Gate Bridge Website. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/Name.php
    • Frequently Asked Questions About the Golden Gate Bridge. Golden Gate Bridge Website. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/facts.php#LongestSuspSpan
    • Why the International Orange Color? What is the Color Formula? Golden Gate Bridge Website. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/factsGGBIntOrngColor.php
    • Painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Golden Gate Bridge Website. http://goldengatebridge.org/research/factsGGBIntOrngPaint.php

About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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6 Comments

  1. patt kutscher

    Thoroughly Enjoyed this article. I love reading all your bit and pieces of our Santa Cruz and more. I was raised in Scotts Valley when the population was 127. Graduated from Holy Cross and lived in Capitola. I live in Kansas now and looking back through all the pictures makes me so homesick. Yet very proud of my home town.

    Reply
    1. Ranger Lautamo

      Thank you for your comment, Patt! So glad you enjoyed the piece and have enjoyed other Mobile Ranger pieces as well, all the way from Kansas! Sounds like you have quite a history here in the Santa Cruz area.

      Reply
  2. Saralie Silva

    I was born in 1936 in San Francisco , we moved to Sausalito so my patents could work in the ship yards. The bridge was very much a part of our lives. Glad to find out why it was painted orange, we were always told it was a weather thing, but they never expanded on this, so interesting to hear the “rest of the story”. Thanks

    Reply
    1. Ranger Lautamo

      You’re welcome, Saralie! Thank you for reading the piece and for sharing your story. It’s always fascinating to hear how different people are connected to the different places we write about on Mobile Ranger.

      Reply
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