A true cover up! Brooklyn Bridge paint job glosses over history

Five things you may not know about the Brooklyn Bridge

All we wanted to know was what color the Brooklyn Bridge will be.

The city is about to undertake a massive paint job on the historic span — one that officials now say will “restore” the bridge to its “original” color.

The problem is, no one seems to know what that “original” color is!

Officially, the Department of Transportation is calling the “original” color “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” — though, appallingly, the same agency had originally called this “original” color “Queensborough Tan” on its Web site.

And the Queensboro Bridge is, after all, freshly painted in a light buff color. “Brooklyn Bridge Tan,” anyone?

Clearly, we needed to do a bit more digging!

Early accounts say that the bridge’s first paint job was a shade of red — Rawlins Red, a pigment derived from iron oxide mined near Rawlins, Wyoming.

And there appears some striking visual evidence to support this claim: a Currier and Ives print circa 1877 — six years before the bridge opened — depicts the span painted a glorious blood red.

Rans Baker, a research historian at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming, told us that folks in Rawlins take a special pride in knowing that their iron oxide, or hematite, was used in one of the country’s most-astounding architectural achievements.

“Yes, we are proud of it,” said Baker, the 72-year-old caretaker of the institution. “We furnished the paint for that bridge! Rawlins still has a claim to that.”

On the bridge’s 100th anniversary, the Rawlins Daily Times boasted, “The old bridge is still sound due in part to several coats of anti-rust paint which came from Rawlins.”

The pigment was used on a host of applications, from steamships to barns. When the paint dries, it turns a deep, unmistakable crimson. What is possible, Baker said, is that the iron oxide in Rawlins Red was slathered on the bridge as an undercoat.

No one knows for sure because the companies that mined the iron oxide are long gone.

Closer to home, the paper trail is also a dead end. The Landmarks Preservation Commission said the exact name of the original paint is not included in the agency’s files.

That means “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” — the Landmarks approved name — may be as real as “Santa Claus Red” or “Tooth Fairy Pink.”

Cowboy diplomacy: Rans Baker, a research historian for the Carbon County Museum in Wyoming, says that Rawlins red is “absolutely” the original color of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Not so, says Landmarks.

“The city determined in 1972, after a great deal of analysis and research, that the bridge was originally painted in two different shades of buff, which is oftentimes called tan,” Landmarks spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon told us.

But de Bourbon bristled when asked about Rawlins Red.

“The bottom line is that you’re wrong if you think that the city does not know what the original color of the bridge is,” she said.

To bolster her case, de Bourbon dispatched a copy of a press release issued in 1972 by then-Mayor John Lindsay that discussed an earlier bridge repainting project.

This release also said that the span would be restored its “original colors”: two shades of buff and silver (silver? Where did that come from?).

“Researching the original colors was no small task,” Lindsay said at the time, adding that the colors (silver?!) were selected on the basis of the bridge’s Gothic Revival architecture, the contents of an 1883 issue of Harper’s magazine, and references contained in the book, “The Story of John Roebling and his Son.”

Lindsay also cited a Currier and Ives print — perhaps the one with the unmistakable Rawlins Red pigment!

De Bourbon was quick to point out that the 1877 print may not have been a literal representation. Indeed, most subsequent Currier and Ives prints show it painted a tan-like color.

Technically, the approved color for the bridge repainting is “Federal Specification #20227,” a reference number from the General Services Administration’s paint color Bible.

The federal agency maintains an index of paint colors for use in federal projects, for example, the painting of planes “aircraft green” or vehicles “school bus yellow.”

Federal Specification #20227 is comprised of five pigments: rutile titanium dioxide, natural raw umber, chrome yellow medium, carbon black, and, oh yeah, red iron oxide.

Red iron oxide — as in Rawlins red?

Gary Buiso is a reporter for the Courier-Life chain of newspapers.

An exhibit from the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming sets the record straight about the bridge’s first coat. Or does it?
Courtesy of the Carbon County Museum