It is one of the most famous and most photographed suspension bridges in the world, but the Golden Gate bridge really isn’t gold. Technically, the Golden Gate’s paint color is orange vermilion, also known as “international orange” or in the Pantone Matching System, PMS 173 — all of which are fancy ways of saying orange-red. Soon after it was completed in 1937, consulting architect Irving Morrow rejected gray, black, and silver, and successfully persuaded the bridge builders to keep the bridge the color of the primer (orange-red) as the final color. Not only was orange-red highly visible from the water and through the fog, but the color also blended in with the bridge’s natural setting. In a report, Morrow writes: ““The effect of International Orange is as highly pleasing as it is unusual in the realm of engineering.”
Had Morrow not been successful in promoting orange-red, the Golden Gate Bridge would look entirely different. The U.S. Navy wanted the two giant towers painted with alternating yellow and black stripes (resembling a bumblebee); while the Army Air Corps wanted alternating red and white stripes (resembling a barber pole or candy cane).
So, back to our original question: why is it called the Golden Gate Bridge rather than the Orange-Vermilion Bridge or the Orange-Red Bridge? Back in 1846, explorer John Fremont (captain of the topographical engineers of the U.S. Army) named the strait forming the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate. In his notes, Fremont used the Greek word, Chrysopylae, an allusion to the Golden Horn of the Bosporus (Istanbul). Fremont imagined that all the riches from the Far East would flow through this magnificent strait, a grand portal into San Francisco. Hence, San Francisco was called the City of the Golden Gate, referring to the strait and not any existing or future structure. When the bridge was built almost 100 years later, it became a physical — as well as symbolic — gate to the city — a golden gate that happened to be painted orange-red rather than gold.
Painting the Golden Gate is a herculean task requiring more than 47,000 gallons of paint. The paint alone adds almost 500,000 pounds to the weight of the bridge. Sherwin Williams has been the recent supplier for the Golden Gate’s paint, officially named: Golden Gate Bridge International Orange. Realizing that some people are so fond of the Golden Gate color, Sherwin Williams has developed a color, Fireweed (SW 6328), specifically for homeowners. Fortunately for homeowners, most home projects don’t require 47,000 gallons.
For further reading: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 17th Edition by John Ayto, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2005). Placenames of the World by Adrian Room, McFarland (1997).