Paint the Walt Whitman Bridge rainbow to honor an LGBTQ legacy?

The idea is “really nice,” said the CEO of the company that completed a $56 million refurb last year.

A rainbow rendering of the Walt Whitman Bridge

A rainbow rendering of the Walt Whitman Bridge

Streets Dept. /

Updated 9:21 a.m.

Philly-famous artist Conrad Benner has a big idea for his next public art project: He wants to paint a rainbow…on the entire Walt Whitman Bridge.

The force behind the popular Streets Dept. blog, Benner knows a thing or two about public installations — he curated the successful Trashcan Takeover and the “To the Polls” exhibit earlier this year. But the bridge project would be much bigger than those. That’s two-plus miles of ROYGBIV we’re talking about.

As it happens, the crazy proposal is also somewhat poorly timed. The Delaware River Port Authority, which oversees the bridge, commissioned a $56 million repainting only three years ago — and crews just finished the job last August.

So the paint is only six months old, and by modern standards, it won’t need a refresh for at least another 25 years.

But Benner wasn’t thinking about refurbishment when he came up with his idea. The goal is to honor the bridge’s namesake — and Whitman’s little-discussed queerness — with a giant pride flag on his biggest namesake memorial.

“In 2019, a lot of people don’t know who this bridge is named for, or his contribution to queer culture,” Benner told Billy Penn. “So let’s make it into a bigger symbol of queer and LGBTQ pride.”

Still, the project would be no simple undertaking. Painting a bridge from start to finish takes tens of millions of dollars, plus commitment from about 75 employees who work on the job full time for three years. They have to first build platforms under the bridge where they can stand, then clean and spray paint every inch with four coats.

“This isn’t something you take lightly,” said Louis Lyras, CEO of Corcon, the company that executed the recent Whitman painting. “It’s very expensive.”

It’s so hard, in fact, that there’s a whole documentary about the Whitman repainting job (complete with suspenseful voiceover).

The Delaware River Port Authority couldn’t be reached for comment at press time.

To gauge local interest, Benner started a petition on Tuesday evening for the project. In less than a day, Benner met his goal of 500 signatures, and then exceeded it — so he upped the goal to 1,000.

“There’s been a ton of support, and then also people who have critical questions,” he said. “This is at the very early stages. This is just asking if people are interested.”

“That’s really nice what they’re trying to do,” Lyras weighed in. “But jeez, that would’ve had to have been done in the planning stages years ago.”

The good news: Benner’s in the very beginning stages, so he’s willing to be flexible. He suggested he might apply for grants to paint the bridge — or just convey a similar look at night by projecting a rainbow onto the bridge.

Bridge repainters worked for three years to spruce up the Walt Whitman.

Bridge repainters worked for three years to spruce up the Walt Whitman.

Delaware River Port Authority

“If there’s interest in this idea, there’s countless ways to do it,” he said. “From painting a smaller portion of the bridge to light projection to, yes, just waiting until the next round of routine paint many years from now.”

And Benner acknowledged the idea might not come to fruition at all. He just wanted to see if it could.

“The petition is really just to start a conversation, just trying to create a spark in people’s imagination,” Benner said. “Maybe we could work together as Philadelphians to make this happen.”

What would Lymas, the Whitman-painting expert, suggest? Perhaps painting just the towers would be more feasible than the entire bridge.

“Those are 400 foot towers, it’s still not easy,” he said. “But to do the towers to make a statement, that’s possible.”

Thanks for reading all the way

Seems you’re the kind of person who really digs in. Want more? Get an update direct to your inbox each morning, with everything you need to stay on top of Philly news.

Thanks for reading all the way

Been seeing you here a lot lately — seems like you’re the kind of newshound who really digs in. If you value the info we provide, become a member today!

Billy Penn runs on reader support

Like the story above, everything we publish is powered by people like you. If our work helps you learn about Philadelphia, we’d love to count you as a member.

Lock in your support

The article above was published thanks to your support! A monthly membership will help ensure Billy Penn can keep reporting on Philly news.

Spread the love

Billy Penn members like you are the reason our newsroom keeps going. Know someone who might want to support our work? Send them a note — they just might join the local journalism fight.