Golden Gate Bridge, left. Not the Golden Gate Bridge, right.
Ah, the Golden Gate Bridge. Portal to the Pacific! Famous symbol of San Francisco! The Golden Gate Bridge may be the most successful piece of landscape architecture ever constructed -- and yes, Pharaoh Khufu, that includes your handiwork as well. (Oh, snap!)
Some of this power comes from the design of the bridge itself; the way the Art Deco structure sweeps effortlessly between the urban shores of San Francisco and the pristine hills of the Marin Headlands. But much of the magic is generated by the bridge's color; it's a rich and earthy hue that changes from deep purple to bright orange depending on the brightness and clarity of the ambient light.
But what color is the Golden Gate Bridge, exactly? And where can you buy the paint?
These are not idle questions. A few years ago, when Telstar Logistics was in the midst of a major renovation of our Global Headquarters, we decided to paint our facility the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge. Our quest inspired much hunting and phone-calling, yet in the end, we got our paint. How? Where? We'll get to that in a moment.
First, a little background. The University of California at Berkeley website provides a quick overview of how the color was selected:
Chief engineer Joseph Strauss and his colleagues intended to select a paint that would withstand the harsh winds and weather and the corrosive salt air-constant factors for a bridge 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, or silver. Architect Irving Morrow preferred the warm orange color for both aesthetic and practical reasons. He felt that the darker shades would detract from the beautiful setting and that orange could be seen better in dense fog, another constant factor for the Gate. He was supported by local artist and sculptor Benjamin Buffano, and by many other locals who wrote letters supporting his choice of "International Airways Orange."
The locals took to International Orange almost immediately, as evidenced by this letter sent to Irving Morrow in 1935 -- two years before the bridge was completed:
For some time I have been wanting to express to you how fine the Golden Gate Bridge tower on the Marin Shore seems to me.
I have watched it from the ferry and the city in almost every kind of weather and light, and find it superbly in harmony with the landscape both in design and color.
Now that the south tower is beginning to appear the beauty of that color of red lead has been brought home to me even more -- in marked contrast to the drab color of the Carquinez Bridge and others about the bay.
Couldn't the Golden Gate Bridge be left in red lead or some finishing paint that approaches vermillion?
It would enhance the dignity of the great structure and harmonize it completely with its surroundings
Of course, that "red lead" wasn't just primer -- it was the finish coat, and a lead-free version of the color is still in use today. But that's not the kind of information that would be of much use to our local paint retailer. So we made a few calls.
Eventually we ended up at the desk of the purchasing manager for the Golden Gate Bridge itself. She was extremely patient, and here's what we learned: The official paint is called "Golden Gate Bridge International Orange" (of course) and it's manufactured by Sherwin-Williams. Who knew?
All well and good, but there's a catch. The paint used on the Golden Gate Bridge a custom mix (Code: B-66EJ1000 or B-640216206), and it's only sold in very large quantities. Need 500 gallons? No problem. Want less? Don't bother with the commercial stuff, because there's a simpler way to get the goods.
After visiting a Sherwin-Williams dealer in San Francisco, we were informed that the consumer color called "Fireweed" (color code SW 6328) is equivalent to the paint used on the bridge. At first blush we were skeptical. Fireweed looked way too dark when we saw it on a paint sample, so we drove out to the bridge to do a field comparison. Here were the results:
Turns out, it's true: If you allow for a little natural fading on the bridge railing shown here, Fireweed -- the bottom sample shown above -- is indeed the same color as the bridge.
So we went for it. The photo at the top of this post shows the result. The color also looks good inside, and at night, as you can see on the ceiling here:
So don't let the shade of the little paint chip scare you off; in the real world, spread across a real surface, the color of the Golden Gate Bridge can look great anywhere And just as on the bridge itself, the tone and hue change depending on the light.
PS: If you don't have access to a Sherwin-Williams store, the Golden Gate Bridge website provides tips on how to mix the color using either PMS (Pantone Mixing System) or CMYK:
Many people ask how to obtain International Orange Paint --your paint store can mix it with the following information: The PMS code is 173 or the CMYK colors are: C= Cyan: 0%, M =Magenta:69%, Y =Yellow:100%, K = Black:6%.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Golden Gate Bridge (Official bridge website, with a section on "Painting and Maintaining the Bridge")
Backstage atop the Golden Gate Bridge
Best. Halloween. Costume. EVAR! (Hint: It looks like the photos shown here)
(Photos: All color photos by Telstar Logistics)