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

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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.

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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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June 14, 2010 - 11:04am
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