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Bridge's Paint Job Loses Its Sparkle

Metallic gold was Sacramentans' choice in Caltrans voting. Now, most see only red.

November 24, 2002|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — There are times when we must pity the bureaucrats. This is one of those times.

In a display of civic-minded enlightenment, the folks at Caltrans last year invited Sacramentans to pick a new paint color for their beloved Tower Bridge, one of the capital's most visible landmarks.

The winning hue -- topping two other choices -- was metallic gold. It seemed fitting, locals said, given Sacramento's storied Gold Rush past.

But like the candidate who looks smashing on the campaign trail and disappoints once in office, the new color is drawing less than favorable reviews.

"Pukey mustard," Doris Turner calls it.

"Awful, terrible, disgusting," laments Rod Lorenzi.

Bernard Kitt had a physical reaction while driving up Interstate 5, confessing he had to "choke back lunch" when he saw the bridge.

R.E. Graswich, a columnist at the Sacramento Bee, is leading a crusade against the new color, which he calls an insult to the River City's tableau. Reader mail about the bridge, Graswich says, is running 3-to-1 against.

"The Tower Bridge is one of the best things about Sacramento. It's our Golden Gate; it's all we've got!" he railed in an interview. "And now look at it. We can't let this stand."

Caltrans officials acknowledge the grousing, but insist they've received lots of positive feedback as well.

Moreover, the color was chosen by the people, fair and square -- the first time the transportation agency has used direct democracy to guide their work.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said David Anderson, a Caltrans spokesman. "You can't please everyone."

Perhaps not, but next to the famed Capitol dome, the Tower Bridge is Sacramento's most visible icon.

So it's not surprising that emotions are running high.

Stretching 737 feet across the Sacramento River, the bridge -- built during the Great Depression -- serves as the western portal to downtown. Its 110-foot twin towers, illuminated by spotlights at night, are among the most prominent pinnacles on the region's pancake-flat plain.

The bridge also makes for great theater. Locals and tourists alike delight in watching its center span rise to allow tall-masted sailboats and paddle-wheelers to pass underneath.

Sensing the city's ardor for the bridge, Caltrans Director Jeff Morales thought a public vote on a new color was in order.

Three potential color schemes were offered up -- the metallic gold, a green-silver-gold combination, and a burgundy-silver-gold ensemble.

Residents within a 35-mile radius were invited to vote over the Internet or by phone. More than 43,000 weighed in, and gold won handily.

Over the last 10 months, crews have sandblasted the bridge and applied primer and two coats of finish paint. It reopens to traffic this week.

Civic leaders are trying to be charitable, but they are not overly enthusiastic about the outcome.

Chuck Dalldorf, chief of staff for Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, calls the daytime hue "not the vibrant gold the community thought it would be," based on the sample Caltrans supplied.

That said, "the nighttime effect is tremendous," Dalldorf observed. "It looks tremendous and lustrous with the lights on it, and that was very important to the city."

On the other side of the river, in West Sacramento, outgoing City Councilman Jim Cahill calls the hue "a shade too yellow and a bit too glittery for my taste. But I guess it was the people's choice."

Others were less sanguine. An informal lunch-hour survey by The Times, conducted near the bridge, yielded not one positive comment about the color -- and several unprintable ones.

Though most critics said the new shade was better than the tired old ochre it replaced, few expected the final result.

"I thought it would be shimmery, something that glistens," said park planner Wayne Woodroof, whose office sits at the east end of the bridge. "This is splotchy, without much gloss."

Juan Perez, gazing up at the span while strolling the riverfront, said he figured he was looking at the primer.

"This is the final coat? It's a historic structure, a place of grandeur," Perez said glumly. "It deserves better."

Lorenzi's office sits in the shadow of the bridge, and he would have preferred "pink, green, neon, anything" to the hue Caltrans applied.

"It's a disgrace," Lorenzi said, "but I heard they're repainting it."

That's wishful thinking.

Caltrans, which spent $3.5 million on the project, said the three-coat paint job will last at least 30 years.

At least one resident, public relations man Doug Elmets, remains optimistic:

"Maybe it hasn't completely dried," he said hopefully. "It may look putrid now, but over time, perhaps the patina will come through."

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