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Bright-hued bridges? Reaction to idea spans full spectrum of views

Friday, June 15, 2001

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Arthur Ziegler and his staff have been discussing colorful bridges for a couple of years. Now, may the public debate begin.

The president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has suggested that bridges be painted a variety of vibrant colors when they come due for a new paint job. These include most bridges that line the Allegheny River, a few along the Monongahela and, most immediately the Fort Pitt — due for a new coat of paint in 2003.

The new colors bring to mind the hues of overpriced polo shirts in catalogs — candied yam, purple ice, grassy meadow and perfect peach among them — and at least one aesthetically-minded cultural leader is horrified.

Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, said, “Why doesn’t he go and work for IKEA?” Bridges, he said, “are not bath towels.”

Architect Syl Damianos, who sits on the advisory committee for redesign of the Carnegie Science Center, says he likes the idea “a lot. There’s no reason they need to be dull, drab structures.”

While no one is defending the current “Aztec gold” of some Downtown bridges, Allegheny County public works Director Tom Donatelli has said he believes the color should be consistent. Faded to the color that Maxwell King of the Heinz Endowments calls “old dead bananas,” the original color has been called the city’s “signature color,” in citations of sports teams’ uniforms and an old redevelopment moniker, the Golden Triangle.

The Federal Highway Administration paid the bulk of $7 million spent for local bridge painting in 1994. A paint job lasts about 15 years. The state Department of Transportation and the county own the bridges and would have to approve any color changes.

Coinciding with talk of color are plans for bridge lighting. The Riverlife Task Force has targeted three of the bridges — the Roberto Clemente, 7th and 9th Street bridges, three uniform spans side by side on the Allegheny — for a demo-lighting project.

Davitt Woodwell, executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, calls Ziegler’s suggestion “an interesting idea. There are a lot of interesting ideas. Look at places like Cleveland,” where bridges are being painted and lit, he said. Whatever is done, he said, will indicate “how the city wants to present itself to the world. The more discussion the better.”

King, executive director of the Heinz Endowments and co-chair of the Riverlife Task Force, weighs in against color variety. “With all due respect for Arthur, I think he’s dead wrong. The right thing to do is paint them all one color. That becomes a signature look.”

King says he “wouldn’t touch” the Smithfield Street Bridge, but chooses for all the others a vibrant yellow, and lighting.

“Every visitor would come away with the impression we want them to — that rivers and bridges are defining of our life here. All different colors would achieve the opposite.”

Director of operations and marketing for History & Landmarks, admitted the colors the foundation has discussed can look “a little bouncy” on the computer-generated images. “But I don’t think any [purple] bridge would be a Barney purple.”

Sokolowski says the attitude that the Aztec gold is Pittsburgh’s signature color because it matches sports-team uniforms is “provincially simple-minded and second rate. These bridges are exemplars of the 19th -century industrial society. You could do a more creative thing with those bridges than colors, like recognizing the artistic integrity of the period they were made in, then maybe commission an artist to do something that would distinguish it, like with lighting.”

He said the colors that come to mind with the names such as “purple ice” sound like “tawdry nail polish.”

We don’t want our bridges to look like whores.”

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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