In Pixar's Inside Out, which beautifully illustrates not just the inner workings of a child's mind but the sights of San Francisco, a voice in a young girl's head exclaims, "The Golden Gate Bridge! Isn't that great? It's not made out of solid gold like we thought, which is kind of a disappointment, but still!"
That may be a common reaction among children first encountering the famous structure, and the question of its unique color is the focus of Dave Eggers' latest work, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, which is for them.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in the children's lit genre it is not, but it's nonetheless sweet and cheerful and wonderfully illustrated by Tucker Nichols. Think of it as one of Aesop's Fables: "How The Zebra Got Its Stripes" but for architecture.
“I’ve read so much about the bridge and I’ve seen it just about every day for the last 23 years or so,” Eggers told the Marin Independent Journal. “Being from the Midwest it never loses it’s power to stun. Where I grew up there were little bridges over rivers, but nothing like this. So I feel grateful for it every day.”
Of course, the reason the bridge isn't gold in color but is still called the Golden Gate Bridge is easily explained. The area of San Francisco Bay that the bridge crosses is itself the Golden Gate both for its sunset vistas and its gateway to the Bay and was called that long before the bridge was put in place.
But even for adults, the actual color of the Golden Gate Bridge can be a bit of a conundrum. Technically the hue is called "International orange" — but are we really to believe that all the nations of the world would agree it isn't just, like red or umber or something?
“Preliminary to discussion of particular colors, a decision must be made on a matter of policy," the consulting architect on the bridge, Irving Morrow, wrote in 1935 according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. "[Is] it desired to emphasize the bridge as an important feature of the landscape, or to make it as inconspicuous as possible.”
Perhaps the answer was a compromise. Morrow considered several possibilities, including another orange color and, yes, a few shades of gray. But when the steel for the Bridge left its foundries on the East Coast, it came coated with a red lead primer that inspired Morrow as the bridge started taking shape.
Commuting from his East Bay home to the Bridge site via ferry, Morrow saw it that way, in primer red, every day. “The effect of International Orange is as highly pleasing as it is unusual in the realm of engineering," he concluded.
Italian American sculptor Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano, whose public works are all around town, wrote glowingly of the color to Morrow.
I have been watching very closely the progress of the towers on the Golden Gate Bridge in its structural beauty its engineering and architectural simplicity — and of course its color that moves and molds itself into the great beauty and contours of the hill — let me hope that the color will remain the red terracotta because it adds to the structural grace and because it adds to the great beauty and the colorful symphony of the hills — and it is because of this structural simplicity that carries to you my message of admiration.“It’s really about a moment in history and how certain individuals changed history, and the legacy they leave,” said Eggers. “In this case, it’s a bridge that hasn’t lost one bit of its beauty or power to startle and stun. And every time someone who’s read this book goes across it, they’ll know and remember the name of Irving Morrow.”
Related: The 14 Best San Francisco-Set Novels