John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Nature wants to turn this American icon to rust. Chad Allan won't let that happen.
The Golden Gate Bridge is under attack. Corrosive salt air, roadway contaminants, age, UV rays—all these things are trying to turn the majestic span into a pitted skeleton.
Luckily the bridge has a powerful ally: an elite squad of painters, numbering just a few dozen. These busy operatives scurry up, down, and around the span on a never-ending quest to keep it protected and looking sharp.
The job has its ups and downs. There's the swinging through the sky, the whale-watching, and the wielding of badass tools reminiscent of alien torture implements. Less nice, there's a weird kind of marine vertigo and regular exposure to suicides. But Chad Allan sounds like he'd prefer nothing else.
"From A to Z, it's just unbelievable what we're up against and what we're actually able to get done," says the 37-year-old journeyman painter.
Allan met with CityLab at the bridge to chat about doing upkeep on an American icon. The physical requirements have him looking like a big, muscular fist, and while he's not yet popping pain meds every night, he's "sure that day will come."
Goose Necks and Spider Baskets
Allan has been a painter for roughly four years, and getting there wasn't easy. He started at what he calls the bottom of the Golden Gate hierarchy: a part-time lane worker, manually shuffling plastic pylons to alter traffic flow. (A zipper machine handles that now.) Then he was a tow-truck operator clearing accidents. Then a paint laborer mixing pigments and cleaning messes.
Finally, he was ready to pick up a brush. "If you work hard for the bridge, they will reward you," he says.
He suspects the designers of the circa-1930s span never really considered the comfort of its painters. It can be tricky reaching all its nooks and crevices in the spindly underbelly and 746-foot towers, so the crew has to be innovative. "A bridge in all respects is not built to be maintained," he says, "especially from a painting aspect."
The painters dab at hard-to-reach pockets with "goose necks," aka brushes on long poles, checking the results with mirrors. Sometimes they'll hop into motor-driven boxes and take off into the sky to get at cables. Or they'll climb into "Spider baskets" to swipe low surfaces about 200 feet over the Bay. "We call it 'flying,' " says Allan. "That's the fun part of our job."
Replacing antiquated paint requires arduous preparation. Iron workers first attach 150-foot-wide rooms to the span, like wasps festooning a wall with nests. Painters enter these "containments" and bombard the old coat with power washes, grinders, needle guns, and sandblasters. Workers wandering around the site suck up potentially hazardous water and debris with vacuums.
Wrangling a spewing sandblaster can be like "holding a fire hose," says Allan. But just as the containments prevent paint chips raining into the Bay, they also stop a person from accidentally being blown into the ether.
Rust-fighting primer then goes down, and it contains so much zinc a spoonful could treat a century of common colds. Three gallons of water weigh 25 pounds; a three-gallon barrel of the metallic goo crushes the scales at 100 pounds. They spray it on in sweeping gouts, then use brushes to stripe-coat rivets and bolts. Consider that each Golden Gate tower holds at least 600,000 rivets, and you can begin to see the immensity of this task.
At last the steel is ready for its surface coat. Contrary to what many think, it's not red but International Orange. (CMYK breakdown: Cyan: 0 percent; Magenta: 69 percent; Yellow: 100 percent; Black: 6 percent.) The bridge's consulting architect, Irving Morrow, wanted a warm color to complement the nearby hills and contrast with the azure ocean and sky.
Orange might seem to pair as well with nature as polka dots on plaid, but it comes off as genius against other contemporary proposals, like painting the bridge aluminum to evoke the "beauty of a dirigible aircraft." The U.S. Navy also lobbied for black with yellow stripes, putting ship safety over looking like a giant, mechanical bumble bee.
In the course of their duties, the painters can find themselves in precarious positions. They're often tied off with self-retracting life-lines or "yo-yos," so being humiliated is about the worst that can happen if they fall. Still, tight-roping at a bone-smashing distance above the brine can be unsettling.
Allan once ventured onto an exposed beam as wide as an outstretched hand. Whenever heavy machinery rumbled across the bridge deck, it shook him like one of those old-timey vibrating exercise machines. The imperturbable painter wouldn't call it scary, saying only there was "some movement."
What Allan is wary about is the motion of the ocean. There's something about the way the waves undulate through the Golden Gate strait that can discombobulate a distant observer. "That water can actually throw you off a little bit," he says. "If you're having one of those days, you learn to focus on your work."
Of course, that can be hard to do when fun-loving sailors blow their horns right as they pass. "I don't think they're supposed to do that," he guesses.
Brushes With Death
Thankfully, there haven't been many casualties among the painters. The most recent fatal incident seems to have been in 1967, when an unlucky man named Lee R. Patrick suffered both a scaffolding collapse and a broken safety line. That's not to say the job doesn't involve brushes with the Reaper. Another painter had the misfortune to be working up high when the 1957 earthquake struck. The 166,397-ton deck "seemed to leap up and down and suspension cables snapped back and forth like clotheslines," he told a newspaper. The entire structure rocked "like a tree in a gale."
But the painters are certainly surrounded by death. With Golden Gate hosting a record-setting 46 known suicides in 2013, and another 38 last year, being an unwitting voyeur to somebody's final moments is an unavoidable reality (at least until the planned suicide net is installed). Painter Reynaldo Charles once described to The Working Chronicles the toll it took on his psyche:
I've seen a few jumpers, and I don't ever want to look at that kind of scene again. The memory sticks with you the rest of your life. Every time I hear someone say there's a jumper, I get the picture in my head of the last guy I saw. You don't want to take that home with you. At first you're curious, and you can't help but look, but I don't want to see that anymore. After you've been working on the bridge, you recognize people who are thinking about jumping—they keep looking over the side and looking around.
One positive aspect of the bridge workers' proximity to those in crisis is they can sometimes intervene. Dennis Dellarocca, a now-retired paint superintendent, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur in 2012 they "sound the alarm when people behave abnormally and we have already saved some from jumping." And a local woman who's writing about her late father, a painter for almost 30 years, asserts he rescued at least five people.
But being a painter also involves sublime beauty—hovering above the fog line, with the towers jutting up like periscopes on a hidden airship, or spying dolphins, orcas, and the occasional whale gliding silently below. For Allan, much of the pleasure comes from the work itself, and the pride of maintaining one of the most renowned bridges in the world.
"To be a Golden Gate Bridge painter," he says, "you have arrived."