Paint Peel Reveals Beta Bridge's Colorful History

October 02, 2007

Oct. 2, 2007 -- It was a slab of used paint – coats and coats and coats of it.

Oft-painted Beta Bridge lost some of its latex armor recently as a sheet of paint about 4 feet high, 10 feet long and three inches thick, separated from one side of the bridge and peeled off.

"As soon as it started moving, its own weight carried it off," said Garth Anderson, resource center manager at Facilities Management.

The paint seemed to separate along a green layer of paint, which landscape superintendent Richard Hopkins thinks was either a base coat of paint or a layer to cover up another message. There were about six to 12 layers of paint left on the bridge, though Hopkins said one small corner of the original bridge was exposed briefly. It was soon painted over.

Grounds crew workers peeled the paint back to the point where it still adhered to the bridge, then perforated it with a digging bar and broke it off, Hopkins said. The slab of paint that came off was so heavy that it had to be cut in two in order to haul it away.

"It took five of us to pick up each piece," Hopkins said, who estimated each piece weighed about 500 pounds. "It still smelled like fresh paint. Some of the layers never really dried."

The paint slabs were thrown away. Anderson said the sections were not old enough to be lead-based paint and did not have to be treated as hazardous.

Anderson speculated that a combination of summer heat, moisture getting behind the paint and the weight of the layers caused the paint to pull away from the bridge wall. Hopkins agreed, saying this had been the second peel-off in 13 years. He predicted that the remaining paint on that side of the bridge will start to come off soon, perhaps after a few frosts. Students are also picking at the new edge, which Hopkins thinks will hasten its separation.

Alexander Gilliam, secretary for the Board of Visitors and unofficial University historian, said painting messages on the bridge began "in earnest" (meaning several times a week) around 1978. The tradition of bridge painting started with students painting messages, particularly sports scores and exhortations to athletes, on the metal railroad bridge that passes over University Avenue at the Corner. Gilliam said the liablity-conscious railroad tried to discourage that practice. The messages then migrated to Beta Bridge, named for the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, then located at the intersection of Chancellor Street and Rugby Road. That fraternity location was closed in 1971; later, Delta Upsilon fraternity took over the house and unofficial monitoring of the bridge — thus explaining the "THX DU" ("thanks Delta Upsilon") message appended to most paintings, believed to ensure that each masterpiece will not be painted over by the fraternity brothers.

Gilliam recalled that there were many foreign visitors to the University in 1976, the year of the bicentennial. A French delegation, when shown the Lawn, was amazed at the lack of graffiti on the Rotunda and the white columns. University officials pointed to the Beta Bridge as the graffiti repository, Gilliam said.

The current bridge, which is owned by CSX railroad, was built in 1923, replacing two smaller wooden bridges, one for horses and one for pedestrians, that spanned the tracks.