Why The Color Of The Sister Bridges Matters

Jul 2, 2015

Infrastructure decisions affect the public every day — which sewer should be repaired first, which pothole should be filled next—but it’s rare to be asked to weigh in on those decisions. However, an online poll will help decide the future color of the "Three Sisters" bridges, as well as a question of regional identity.

The Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson bridges — the three sisters — haven’t been painted since the late 1980s, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is eager to start the process. But not for aesthetic reasons.

"I want to get them painted so that we stop rust," he said. "We want to save money and make sure these bridges are functional for transportation and economic growth. The paint is probably what people will notice, but it’s a small part of the overall project."

Stephen Shanley, Allegheny County’s Director of Public Works, said combating the bridges’ structural deficiency will require a lot of work.

"It’s a huge undertaking," he said. "The concrete decks will be replaced, we’ll be changing the lighting on the structures, the structures will be painted and we’ll be performing steel repairs to the superstructure."  

When the Seventh and Ninth Street bridges, now Warhol and Rachel Carson, were built from 1924 to 1926, they were the first self-anchored suspension bridges in the country, an engineering feat made all the more impressive when the trio was completed in 1928.  Mayor Bill Peduto said whatever color the public chooses to paint the sisters, he wants to build appreciation for the city’s bridges.

"That is our art, the 20th century architecture of those magnificent bridges," he said. 

Rehabilitation work on each bridge is expected to take 18 months and cost $22 million. State and federal funds will pay for 95 percent of the project and the county will cover the rest. In some ways, it’s a fairly standard infrastructure project. But Peduto said it was important to open the question of color up for conversation.

"At one point we decided we were going to paint bridges yellow. Maybe we’re at a point now where we should be looking at them in a different way," he said. 

The poll offers four options: to stick with Pittsburgh yellow; to paint the Warhol silver and Rachel Carson green; to paint all three one color, whatever color that may be; and a meta choice that allows participants to ask why they are being limited to three colors. Pittsburgh yellow, technically Aztec Gold, has become iconic only within the last 30 years, said Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

"That is not the traditional color of the bridges," he said. "Most of our bridges were painted a kind of silverish platinum color over the years, and then the gold came in for the Golden Triangle."

From 1978 to 1981, the Manganas Painting Company used some 10,000 gallons of Aztec Gold to paint the West End, Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt bridges. The Sister Bridges had green deck girders and a silverish superstructure, said Shanley. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that they took on their brighter hue, said Mark Silvey, senior manager of corporate communications for PPG Industries.

"What we have through our records is that PennDOT looked at three colors that they painted most of their bridges: one was Aztec Gold. The other were azure blue and Grecian green," he said. 

Continuity of color won out over the vaguely Mediterranean flair of the other choices, but when was the iconic yellow created?

"It’s hard to say when the first time Aztec Gold actually appeared," said Silvey. 

As of Wednesday morning, 11,956 people had participated in the poll, and 83.7 percent voted to keep the Sisters Pittsburgh yellow. But Peduto said this isn’t an instance of Pittsburghers being averse to change.

"I thought there would be more conversation around what the other options may be, but you know the nice thing about Pittsburgh is that there are ways we are identified that are iconic," he said. "And when it’s something that’s universally accepted and there’s a pride in it and it’s for good, then you should embrace that."

The poll closes Friday, July 3. Any color choice will be submitted for historic review. The projects will go to bid in early 2016 and work on the Warhol Bridge is expected to begin next spring.