Just in time for the season filled with color, in a box with rare color negatives, we came upon a discovery that could dazzle even knowledgeable spectators familiar with Pittsburgh’s landmarks and their classic looks.
Could you imagine the Fort Pitt Bridge in color, but the color that is not the ‘evergreen’ Aztec gold people associate it with? Have you ever witnessed the Fort Pitt Bridge getting painted? Maybe you know what is usually involved in getting the giant arch of steel its iconic appearance befitting the Golden Triangle?
You think choosing color for your living room is hard? Think again. Try getting that Aztec gold exactly right for the job you can’t exactly screw up. It’s not like PennDOT goes to a Sherwin-Williams store and orders a thousand of gallons of ‘Goldfinch’ paint from the palette and just like that, in two coats — with blue tape and a few rollers — gets the job done.
When the Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne and West End bridges and ramps were painted between 1978 and 1981, the contractor used more than 31,200 gallons of paint — a red primer, a secondary sandstone-color coat and an ‘Aztec gold’ finish coat. You can see these layers and even imagine the process in these photographs.
As the first order of business, even before getting to applying paint, the crews of unionized bridge painters, who in the 1980s used to make $22 an hour, had to erect canvas protection over traffic lanes. The job is slow and tedious but based on the interviews the Post-Gazette conducted over the years with bridge painters, they would rather paint “a steel girder 300 feet high than paint a second-floor window frame,” because “working on a ladder is more dangerous than anything.”
Bridge painting is not exactly the first exciting thought that crosses a visitor’s mind as he or she is crossing the Fort Pitt Bridge on the entrance to the city. Yet without the paint job, the faded appearance and emerging rust spots are likely to rob the city of its striking vista on the exit from the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The bridge is part of that grand view. As one Pittsburgh official put it in the 1980s, “If the bridge doesn’t look good it takes away some of the glamor.”
Pigeon droppings are the worst. Their acidity is more destructive to the steel bridge that road salt, according to PennDOT. “Years of accumulated droppings, when combined with water inside beams can cause corrosion that eats through paint and even welds on the bridges.”
But painting the Fort Pitt Bridge built in the 1950s in its entirety is costly and disruptive that’s why PennDOT prefers to do “zone painting” to fix bad areas most susceptible to rust caused by water and winter de-icing chemicals.
The job you are seeing in these photographs cost the state $2.3 million. At the time, it was the largest bridge painting contract PennDOT had awarded. The work, which began in 1980, took about a year and was done while motorists used the bridge.
Since then the bridge starred in movies, was featured in postcards and for sure confused lots of motorists with its complex lane changes.
Still Pittsburghers would agree the Fort Pitt Bridge deserves to be picture perfect. Did you know it was the first computer-designed bowstring arch bridge in the world?