Witness Post: The Color of Gold
The first time I saw that color, I thought everyone had lied to me. How could anyone call that color GOLDEN? It wasn’t gold! To my eye it was more like a dull orange/red, a cross between University of Texas burnt orange and a red stop sign. Cousin Stuart, a distant cousin on my mother’s side of the family, had told me it was painted that way by accident, but I did not believe him. The “it” I am talking about is the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1937. This year the Bridge is celebrating its 75th birthday, and the city is of San Francisco is hanging from cable cars shouting, “Happy Birthday!” And they love the color.
Grand Opening of the bridge, 1937
The Bridge was a mere 26 years old when I first saw it, while on a Hooper family camping trip. We had flown to San Francisco to see the national parks in eastern California, and we rented a camper to drive up the coast before we headed east to the Sierra Nevada’s. An hour or so before we walked wide-eyed among the giant sequoia’s in Muir Woods, we saw “the Bridge.” Dad told us the story that the Bridge was so long that it was nearly always in the process of being painted. I had been across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tons of times, and it is seven miles long, but I never saw men painting it gray. On this trip I stared at the Golden Gate Bridge but still could not wrap my head around the color. California was the golden state, right? Then why were the East Bay Hills brown and the famed suspension bridge orange/red?
We had camped out the night before in the backyard of our cousins, Stuart & Frances Lee, who lived in a tidy home in Atherton. Stuart and Frances, both in their 70’s, were devoted to each other and had only been married for a few years. They were also first cousins. As shocking as that revelation was to me (social taboos about marrying close relatives and all), unless Yahweh was going to pull another Abraham and Sarah on us, there was no fear of offspring from these two love birds. Both had been lifelong friends and neither had married, so it seemed legit to us that they have the pleasure of each other’s company in their golden years. Cousin Stuart was a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan, with his mitt and Giants cap ready to watch every game on television, cheering on “the Willies”: McCovey and Mays. Cousin Stuart hinted to me that he felt that the name of the Bridge was a poor choice and that the color, while pretty, was not golden. “Why?” I asked. “Because it always needs a coat of primer to prevent rusting, and primers are often red in color.” That did not sound like a reasonable answer to me. Why would they stop painting a bridge after only a primer coat? I thought it was one of those “California things,” where people exaggerate, because they love their state so much.
View of the Bridge from The Presidio in San Francisco
It turns out that my Cousin Stuart Lee may have been right after all. According to local legend, in the 1930’s there were fierce debates among the designers and San Franciscans about the color of the bridge. Would it be black, gray, or with horizontal stripes? Even divisions of the US Department of Defense lobbied for their preferred colors: the Air Force wanted orange & white and the Navy wanted bumblebee black & yellow. Who knew?
As construction came to an end, the bridge was given a coat of primer—which happened to be pure red lead. The primer glowed “golden” at sunrise and sunset, “evoking the iron rich hills of the Marin County headlands.” According to the newspapers, the locals loved the color and the final decision was made to paint it International Orange, the same color we see today.
When I first moved to California in 1976, I rented an apartment in Marin County’s Tiburon for a few months. Twice daily I hopped a ride on the downtown SF ferry, which docked at the Ferry Building, right at the foot of Market Street. Before “The Bridge” that ferry ride was the method that nearly everyone from Marin commuted to the City. Since Gold Rush days (1849), the travel around the Bay, or more recently over the Bay Bridge, was too long for a commute; so daily travel was made via ferry. In the afternoons, when the morning fog had burned off and before the evening fog rolled in again, the scene was wonderful. To my eye there was no finer sight than the lights of the Financial District behind us and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset to the west. What a relaxing way to unwind from the long days of work!
When we rented a house in the Haight District of San Francisco for about a year, my first roommate, Steve Sachran, wanted me to take his picture in a lab coat standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Steve was a medical student at UC San Francisco. The photo was of Steve in his white coat with a black stethoscope around his neck. He said it was his ideal pose to send to his folks in New York. We waited from several weeks, to find a day when the fog wasn’t clouding the view. Summers are cold there: another myth about sunny California crashed and burned those years. As Mark Twain lamented, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” When the weather finally broke, Steve and I rode our bikes across town to that one particular spot in San Francisco proper, just north of Baker Beach and Seal Rocks and west of the Presidio. From there I could get a great shot of Steve standing near his bike with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Although I do not have a copy of the picture, it was a clear day and the photo was a keeper.
Dr. Steve Sackrin
There is definitely something iconic about the Golden Gate Bridge (Tracy hates that word, iconic, insisting it is hackneyed). To me the Golden Gate is the California’s Brooklyn Bridge. I love them both, and as I have arrived near them, I walk or run across them for pleasure. When we lived in Baltimore we often visited friends in Brooklyn, New York and our ritual was to run across the Brooklyn Bridge. The girls joined me sometimes. When we moved to Oregon in 2001, we had some time between packing and our furniture arriving, so we flew to San Francisco and drove north. I took Tracy and the three girls on a bike ride through Golden Gate Park and across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the trek was long. The bike ride also filled a dream I had had that our entire family would see this other great bridge up close. Nothing like a run or a bike ride across a bridge to feel its grandeur.
The impending 75th birthday bash got me thinking about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I started doing my usual research. There is so much information available on the internet these days, the research is not difficult. You just have to figure out what you want. I decided that I would describe my experience with The Golden Gate and then let the pictures in the global public domain of the web tell the rest of the story.
Statistics on the Golden Gate Bridge
Construction started: 1933
Type of Bridge: Suspension bridge
Bridge completed: 1937
Total length: 8,980 feet (2,737 m)
Height: 220 feet (67 m)
Address: Presidio, San Francisco, California 94129
Color: International Orange
Open to the Public Phase
The Infamous Fog Rolls In
More Celebratory Images
A Photo, where the bridge appears on fire, or almost golden
Perhaps the name, The Golden Gate Bridge, works after all.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”