What Happens When the Paint Peels Off Beta Bridge?

Left: backhoe removing layers of paint off of beta bridge.  Right: up close view of all of the paint layers from beta bridge

Left: Students often paint Beta Bridge with messages daily; sometimes all that paint grows too heavy and peels off. Right: Layers of paint left after the latest slab fell off in August. (UVA Facilities Management; Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

It is much easier to add paint to Beta Bridge than to take it off.

On Aug. 22, a pliable, multi-colored slab of paint – single layer upon single layer about 4 inches thick – peeled off the west side of the Rugby Road bridge, blocking the sidewalk. The peeled paint was reported at 5:40 a.m. and University of Virginia Facilities Management staff had cleared it by 9:30 a.m. That is no small feat.

Be safe, for all of us. -UVA

“I would put the weight in the 500-pound range, and it required a bucket loader to pick it up,” Rich Hopkins, landscape superintendent, said. “It took three guys about an hour and a half from the time they got on site to when they were leaving to clean the sidewalk. The guys basically scooped it up as a pile and loaded it onto a truck.”

While the paint peeled off the bridge frame, it did not expose the original concrete – there are still layers and layers of messages, painted by student groups from years past. Students often paint the bridge daily, with messages about clubs or causes, birthday wishes or other slogans.

Beta Bridge reads Pray for America fight for Justice

This photo, taken on Sept. 13, 2001, shows a message of support after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Matt Kelly, University of Virginia Visual History Collection)

“It must have been a poor paint job several years ago that didn’t adhere to the previous day’s painting,” Hopkins said. “I wonder how many layers of paint have already been applied to the spot now that the students are back.”  

The paint peels off Beta Bridge periodically, and Hopkins noted that paint slid off the east side of the bridge in 2007 in similar circumstances. He said at that time, some members of the University community requested pieces of the paint slab, but he said there have been no requests this time.

“The paint is truly just a pile and I don’t see it having any use by anyone,” Hopkins said. “We have held on to it just in case someone has an idea for its use, but we will dispose of it shortly otherwise.

“Dry latex paint can go to the landfill with the regular trash,” he said. “It is unlikely that what fell off is no more than a few years old, so the presence of lead paint isn’t an issue.” 

Retired University historian Alexander Gilliam said in 2007 that 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 liability-conscious railroad tried to discourage that practice.

Vintage photo of Beta Bridge

Before painting Beta Bridge became a tradition, students painted football scores on the railroad bridge crossing University Avenue. (Photo by Rufus Holsinger, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

The messages then migrated to Beta Bridge, named for the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, then (and now) 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 until Beta repurchased the property in 2009 – thus explaining the “THX DU” (“Thanks Delta Upsilon”) and “THX Beta” messages appended to most paintings, believed to ensure that the message will not be painted over by the fraternity brothers.

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

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications