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Your Cause in Lights: The Empire State Building's Tribute Policy

One of the most recognizable buildings in the world, loved by tourists, locals and giant gorillas alike, the Empire State Building decorates the New York City skyline with regular displays of colored lights. A recent controversy over the Empire State Building's rejection of the Catholic League's proposal to honor of Mother Teresa's centennial with blue and white lights has put a spotlight on the buildings lighting policy. Among the protestors, City Council members are speaking out against the decision.

As stated by the building management, which receives hundreds of lighting requests each year, "The Empire State Building's tower lights recognize key milestones, events, charitable organizations, countries, and holidays throughout the world, not political or religion related events."

Yet, some lighting choices have been controversial.

For example, in 2009, when red and yellow lights shone to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of China (pictured), critics called it a tribute to communist rule and a country with a poor human rights record. And religious figures have been honored in the past, such as in 1979, when the building lit up in white and gold in honor of the pope's visit to New York, and in 2005, when they were dimmed to honor his death. The Catholic League also pointed out that in 2000, the building was lit in red and white when Cardinal Arch Bishop of New York John Joseph O'Connor died, and the building is regularly lit black, red and green in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Day. In May, the building lit up in blue and white to honor the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York's Salute to Israel Parade. Also, a number of the holidays marked with lights (Christmas, Chanukah, Eid al-Fitr) have religious significance.

The 2008 rejection of an application from the Marine Corps to honor its birthday has also come back into the discussion.

The management has stayed quiet on the Mother Teresa decision other than stating that it's final. It has been self-critical in the past for lighting choices on occasion. In a 2003 New York Times interview, building special events manager Lydia A. Ruth said she regretted some of the more commercial lighting choices--Microsoft 95 (blue, red, green and yellow), new M&Ms (blue), and Pink Floyd's new album (red pulses).

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Justin Bieber may have generated the most buzz when he flipped the switch on the Empire State Building light display for the Jumpstart Reading Challenge in 2009, but Herbert Hoover was the first to light up the Empire State Building back in 1931 after the building's completion. (Technically, he pressed a button in D.C.) Since then, the lights have gone through many evolutions, expanding in size, color and occasions, and decreasing in wattage. In 1932, a searchlight switched on to signify New York's own FDR's presidential election win. (On election eve 2008, the tower displayed both red lights for Republicans and blue lights for Democrats. After Obama won, it switched over to all blue.)

In 1956, revolving beacons, known as "Freedom Lights" were added to the building, turning it into a "lighthouse of the sky." A new set of Empire State Building lights debuted during the 1964 World's Fair, brightening the building's facade.

Douglas Leigh was behind the colorful lighting advancements. In his advertising career, Leigh was also the innovator behind a number of iconic billboards that featured steaming cups of coffee, glowing weather displays and rings of cigarette smoke. Equipped with Leigh's new color palette, the building started lighting up in earnest in the 1970s. The first display was on July 4, 1976—the Empire State Building lit up in Red, White and Blue, but it might not have been for the nation's bicentennial. Some accounts say that it was actually to celebrate the birthday of Leona Helmsley, one half of the real estate empire of Harry and Leona Helmsley (she was also born on the fourth of July).

The following year, Yankees fans celebrated their World Series Victory in the glow of blue and white lights from a new bigger display that reached from the 72nd floor all the way to the television antenna. As the New York Times put it, "Colored lights turn the Empire State Building into a toy."

In addition to vertigo, engineers who change the light gel colors as many as 200 times per year must contend with snow drifts and wayward hawks. Now, a more computerized system has greatly reduced the daily work of changing the colors of the lights.

What Do the National Osteoporosis Society and Windows 95 Have in Common?


Since 2006, the official Lighting Partner program has reviewed applications for those who want to celebrate with colored lights atop the famous building. A variety of holidays, occasions and individuals are celebrated.

Usually, no more than three different colors are allowed, but a lighting display in honor of the Grateful Dead's museum exhibit sparkled in a tie-dye rainbow of colors (pictured).

In addition to regular holidays, what else has been celebrated in lights?

Singers:
Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday and also his death (blue)
Mariah Carey's top-selling album (purple, pink and white)

Fictional Characters:
The Simpsons movie release (yellow)
Popeye's 75th Birthday (green)

Corporations
Microsoft, for Windows 95 (blue, red, green and yellow)
Snapple, for a corporate meeting (yellow)

Causes:
Breast Cancer Awareness (pink)
National Osteoporosis Society (teal)

Pets
Cat Fanciers Association (purple, orange and white)
Westminster Dog Show (purple and gold)

The Cat Fanciers Association lights shone for three nights, one night longer than the Westminster Kennel Club display--perhaps there are more cat lovers than dog lovers behind the scenes at the Empire State Building.

On other nights, the lights shine in all white, or in the colors of New York sports teams when they have home games. Following 9/11, the Empire State Building went off its regular schedule to shine red, white and blue all through the night to offer comfort to those looking out at the sky in the wee hours.

Lights Out

In addition to brightening up the sky, the Empire State Building has gone dark on a few specific occasions.

In 2004, it went dark for 15 minutes in honor of Faye Wray, the actress carried up to the top of the building in King Kong.

In 2008, the Empire State Building went "green" by turning off the lights in honor of Earth Hour. (Though far more energy is conserved in this and other commercial buildings through changes to what's going on inside of the building.)

During certain times of the year, the building dims its light to be less distracting to migratory birds.

In 1992, Harry Helmsley ordered the lights turned off for the first night of Leona's prison sentence for tax evasion.

When Harry died in 1997, the building paid tribute by dimming its lights for 7 days.

If you can't see the Empire State Building from your own window, check out this handy site to see what color the building is today and how it looks.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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