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Why the Golden Gate Bridge Is Orange

Spanning 1.7 miles and connecting San Francisco with Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge in California is an engineering marvel and one of the most-photographed bridges in the world. But have you ever wondered why it’s painted that striking orange-red hue?

A Golden Opportunity

The Golden Gate Bridge with a boat passing underneath
Credit: jeff_finley/ Unsplash

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The color of the bridge doesn’t have anything to do with its name. The bridge is actually named for the body of water it spans — the Golden Gate Strait, which connects San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The strait itself was named "Chrysopylae" (Golden Gate) by Army Captain John C. Fremont in 1846.

The story behind the bridge’s brilliant color is part happy accident, part persistence. After the steel for the bridge was cast at foundries back East, it arrived in San Francisco covered in a red lead primer. Although meant to be temporary, the color proved attractive to many locals. Most importantly, it caught the eye of a man named Irving F. Morrow.

Morrow was a consulting architect on the bridge, hired in 1930. He designed features like streetlamps and walkways, added Art Deco details, and studied potential paint colors. Each evening, as he rode the ferry home from his office in San Francisco to Oakland, he studied the interplay of light and shadow among the hills, the ocean, and the bay.

As the towers for the bridge went up, he noticed that couldn’t help but notice how the bright red primer contrasted beautifully with the blue-gray tones of the sea and sky, while flattering the earth tones of the land. As it happened, many San Franciscans agreed with him, and wrote him letters praising the primer.

In 1935, Morrow submitted a report on colors and lighting to the bridge's board of directors. "The Golden Gate [Strait] is a scenic feature which demands all possible respect," Morrow wrote — and thus the choice of color was key. He wrote in favor of choosing a luminous color, which would play up the exhilarating scale of the bridge. A dull or dark color, on the other hand, would make it seem smaller. Morrow also advocated for a warm color, to contrast with the cool tones of the region’s skies and water, especially its famous fog.

For the sake of thoroughness, Morrow also considered more conventional colors. Black was the "most objectionable" color that could be chosen, since it would make the bridge look smaller, while aluminum would deprive the bridge of substance and make it look "tinny." Gray offered no particular distinction, although Morrow thought a warm gray might work as a second choice. But when it came right down to it, it was hard to improve on the color of the primer. To make his case, he added some of the letters he’d received from "observers from all walks of life" to the end of the report.

At first, the bridge authorities were unswayed. The red was an unconventional choice, and no vermillion paint would stand up to the strait’s salt-laced winds, they argued. (The Navy, meanwhile, wanted the bridge painted in yellow and black stripes for visibility, although thankfully that idea was turned down.)

But Morrow persisted, and soon found a durable orange-red paint close to the color of the primer. The bridge authorities eventually relented, admitting that the warm hue made for a stunning complement to the landscape.

An International Star

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California
Credit: kevinwolf/ Unsplash

Today, the paint used on the bridge (a zinc silicate primer and acrylic top coat) actually protects the steel from corrosion. Maintenance teams routinely inspect the bridge for areas of decay, and touch-ups happen continuously.

The color of the bridge is sometimes called International Orange, a hue used in the aerospace industry for its visibility. However, the bridge uses a special version of International Orange that’s formulated just for the structure. Golden Gate Bridge International Orange is currently supplied by Sherwin-Williams as part of a competitive bidding process. The closest off-the-shelf color, according to the bridge’s website, is Sherwin-Williams "Fireweed" (color code SW 6328) — in case you want to bring a touch of San Francisco to your bedroom or den.

Some tall towers elsewhere in the world are also painted International Orange to comply with aerospace regulations. Notably, the Tokyo Tower in Japan is International Orange and white. But they’re not quite the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge. It stands alone, proof that sometimes the first draft is perfection.

Featured image credit: gabrielrana/ Unsplash