Ever seen Sleepless in Seattle? Okay, dumb question. The red heart-shaped light display in the movie was real. It’s been done every Valentine’s Day for years. It’s one of several special light shows the ESB puts on for holidays and special occasions. Not any more. The spotlights that created that show have been taken down, stowed away in the empty 72nd floor, and in the early hours of last Friday, the new lights were tested, synchronized to an arranged broadcast of Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” from Clear Channel Radio. The test was conducted between 2:30 and 3 a.m. to grasp a thin hope of not being filmed and shown on YouTube by passerbys.
On Monday, the new show premiered, viewed by thousands of New Yorkers, New Jerseyites, and ships at sea. The new LED lights can create “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” according to Phil O’Donnell of the Burlinton, Mass. Philips Color Kinetics company that designed the system. “It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.” Color palette? Okay, 16.7 million colors is cool. Physical palette? One hundred two stories is an impressive canvas.
The new lights are part of a half-billion dollar renovation of the 81-year old structure. A lot of that renovation involves modernizing and greening the grand old lady. The ESB was privately built during the depths of the Great Depression. It was a remarkable statement of faith in the ability of the United States to recover and thrive. It remains in private hands, though it is one of America’s most recognized landmarks and visited by tens of thousands of people every year.
Only one of the old lights will continue to be used, the Volkswagen Beetle-sized red light that warns airplanes of the building’s presence.
The lighting fixtures put in the building in 1931 had bulbs that screwed in backwards. That was to prevent workers in the building stealing the bulbs.
The full light show was conducted Monday night, with Alicia Keys throwing the switch for the display timed to her “Girl on Fire” and followed by her duet with Jay-Z on “Empire State of Mind.” It celebrated the release of Keys new album. With the vastly lower cost of the light show, it could be used for non-holiday displays like this, heralding the release of new albums or films, the opening of new shows on Broadway, anything could happen now.
Keys was thrilled to inaugurate the new lights, saying before the show, “Everything surrounds the Empire State Building, plus the lights on the Empire State Building reflect the different times of the year and the different things that are happening…It’s such a community feeling there, so tonight I get to be a part of a special moment.” She latter tweeted, “Watching the Empire State Building light up with GOF and Empire state of mind was BEYOND my wildest dreams!!”
Thirty-four hundred men, including hundreds of Mohawk native Americans (some from the Kahnawake reservation in Canada), were involved in the construction, with excavations beginning on January 22, 1930, construction beginning on St. Patrick’s Day and the ribbon cutting on May 1, 1931. Getting a job on the ESB was an incredible opportunity during the Depression, from the death-defying high steel-walking Mohawks to the lowliest apprentice hod-carrier. It was a decent paycheck when so many were out of work.
For 81 years, the ESB has housed every imaginable type of business office. Even when other buildings overshadowed the ESB as a fashionable address, its location in mid-town made it a popular choice. Imagine leaving the office one evening and walking a few blocks to catch a game at Madison Square Garden, using your lunch hour to shop Fifth Avenue. Okay, things got pretty dicey in mid-town for a while there, and it hasn’t really recovered it storied Christmas window glory, but it’s still the Empire State Building.
My Uncle Joe was one of those apprentices. To his dying day he was completely in awe of the men who walked the high steel. He also had very little good to say about the modern sky scraper, pointing to the ESB’s triple-redundant construction as the reason it survived being hit by a B-25 in 1945 between the 79th and 80th floors, killing 14 people. Elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver survived the 75-story plunge her car took when the cables were severed. One engine landed on the roof of a nearby building setting the penthouse on fire.
His mother, my paternal grandmother, was a janitrix in the building, which is how I know about the backward-screwing light bulbs. My maternal Aunt Pat spent most of her professional life in the ESB. These are connections to the steel, concrete and bricks that thousands of New Yorkers and former New Yorkers share. It’s more than a building. It’s the heart of the city. No matter what else may rise on Manhattan Island, the Empire State Building will always be its symbol.
The Malkin family, which controls the ESB is to be thanked for all they are putting in to the renovations. Too many iconic New York buildings were destroyed in the name of progress. I’ve always thought a great city has a time in its architectural history that embodies everything the city is, was and will be. In London, it’s the Regency era. In Paris, it’s La Belle Epoch. For New York, it was from the completion of the Dakota in 1884 into the Art Deco era of the Empire State Building.
I’m looking forward to the light show on May 1, 2031.