Lights Highlight Famous New York Tower

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 30, 2006; 4:50 AM

NEW YORK -- Louis Esposito and his fellow electricians were taking down the mother of all Christmas trees _ or lighting one giant Hanukkah candle, depending on how they looked at it.

At that moment, the best way to look at it was any way but down. "They say, 'Don't look down, and you're all right.' That's what I do," he said.

Lighting the top of the Empire State Building is a decades-old tradition that gives a special mark to Manhattan's famous skyline. This year, the process of choosing which occasions and causes to honor changed somewhat, but crafting the display remains a largely hands-on matter of wing nuts and elbow grease.

Esposito and his colleagues worked 72 stories above midtown Manhattan to temporarily change the building's famous light display from Christmas red and green to Hanukkah blue and white.

A change can take four electricians as long as six hours and entail chipping ice, shuffling through snowdrifts and tying workers to ropes to thwart the wind.

But the recognition is worth it, chief electrician Bill Tortorelli said. After all, many New Yorkers view the shimmering top as a personal nightlight, and some call the building if they see an unfamiliar color scheme.

"It makes us kind of feel like part of the city ... and the world," Tortorelli said.

At 75, the Empire State Building is again the tallest tower in New York. The 103-story skyscraper had been eclipsed by the World Trade Center's 110-story twin towers from 1972 until they were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Art Deco building's lighting display traces its origins to 1932, when a searchlight beacon signaled that Franklin D. Roosevelt had won the presidential election. Colors were introduced to mark the nation's bicentennial in 1976.

The color scheme now changes roughly 70 times a year, for reasons that have ranged from celebrating autumn foliage to the World Cup archery championship to the 75th anniversary of the cartoon character Betty Boop.

Groups that arrange for a display are expected to promote it, especially since the selection process changed this year to ask specifically for publicity plans. But the groups generally are not charged a fee, said Lydia Ruth, who oversees the display.

Sweet-16s and other personal milestones are out of the question, and product promotions have been relatively rare since 1995, when the building reflected the releases of blue M&M's, the Windows '95 computer operating system and a new album from classic rock titans Pink Floyd.

Ruth said building managers are cautiously weighing whether to allow more corporate marketing. "We're not a billboard," said Ruth, who fields two to three lighting requests per week.

Many displays are seasonal or international _ including at least a dozen nations' independence days _ but some are distinctly homegrown.

The building has gone all-red to recognize the local Big Apple Circus' fall fundraiser. And when Brunswick, N.J.-based Rutgers University faced a major football game against the University of Louisville in November, delighted Rutgers fans found their team's scarlet shining from the marquee skyscraper (Rutgers won 28-25).

To create a display, the building's full-time electricians clamber out through office windows to fasten pizza-sized, tinted plastic discs onto 204 floodlights that dot narrow terraces on the 72nd and 81st floors. The floodlights form the first two layers of color.

The third layer, in the building's 203-foot spire, consists of fluorescent tubes that change color with the flip of a switch, except when the color needs to be orange. In that case, electricians spider through steelwork to sheath the lights by hand.

The roughly 250,000-watt display uses about as much power as 250 window air conditioning units, Tortorelli said. (For those concerned about conservation, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has applauded the building's overall energy efficiency.)

The lights are usually on from shortly before sundown until midnight. They have sometimes been darkened to avoid distracting migrating birds and to recognize times of national mourning. The lights were darkened during the first days after 9-11, though soon after the lights stayed on all night for months as a gesture of reassurance.

As midtown's rooftops took shape through a lifting fog, Esposito tightened a blue disc on a 72nd-floor light. Hanukkah's blue-white-blue would last a week, until Christmas' red-green-green returned. Esposito would see the results that night from his kitchen window in Queens.

"Before I got this job I said to myself, 'I'm going to work there someday.'"


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