The Washington Monument and the Capitol are among the most brightly illuminated landmarks in Washington, reflecting their importance in the capital.
The Washington Monument and the Capitol are among the most brightly illuminated landmarks in Washington, reflecting their importance in the capital.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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Bathed In the Right Light

The Lincoln Memorial, one of the big three along with the Jefferson and Washington, long had a little piece of paper next to the controls that gave lighting levels
The Lincoln Memorial, one of the big three along with the Jefferson and Washington, long had a little piece of paper next to the controls that gave lighting levels "approved by the Fine Arts Commission, 1952." Recently, construction of a nearby building was approved with assurances that "the new building's light is deferential in relationship to the Lincoln Memorial." (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

And final approval came only with a memorandum of understanding that requires the building's tenant (a federally chartered agency working to understand conflict and conflict resolution) to keep the lights low.

"The lighting will be adjusted . . . as necessary to ensure that the new building's light is deferential in relationship to the Lincoln Memorial," reads the document. It also specifies that the lighting be placed on dimmers, what kind of light meter will be used to measure its intensity, and that a lighting manual documenting the agreed-upon lighting levels be submitted to the National Capital Planning Commission.

Parsons would be happier with a slightly less complicated solution.

"We hope the answer is: 'Turn it off,' " he says. "Just turn it off." But that's not likely to happen.

The cause for Parsons's longtime concern becomes clear when one considers the effort it has taken to get the Mall looking the way it is now. Over the years, incandescent lighting, which is costly and energy inefficient, has mostly disappeared from the Mall, except to light walkways. Making the early metal halide lamps that became fashionable in the 1960s look right -- warm and white -- required trial and error, and experimentation with filters. Changes in technology have produced warmer, more incandescent-looking metal halide fixtures. And today there's great excitement about the potential of LED fixtures -- which last longer, require less maintenance and can be hidden more discreetly -- though Washington remains, as in most things aesthetic, conservative when it comes to experimentation.

Even after the Washington Monument restoration was finished in 2000, Joe Crookham thought it wasn't lit well.

Crookham, whose company, Musco Lighting, specializes in lighting sports events, took a closer look. What he found was an inefficient system that threw a lot of light up in the air in the vain hope of illuminating a thin obelisk rising more than 555 feet.

"There was a lot shadowy darkness," he says. "It didn't look nearly as interesting in the nighttime as it did in the daytime."

Crookham, whose company also lit the Pentagon and World Trade Center sites during the rescue and cleanup operations after Sept. 11, 2001, is a board member of the National Park Foundation (which raises private funds for the Park Service). So he volunteered his services to rethink the problem. The solution was a system his company developed to light NASCAR races.

At night, getting light on the front stretch of a NASCAR track is tricky, mainly because you don't want light shining directly into the eyes of spectators. The solution, from Musco, is a system that uses mirrors to create a bright but narrow ribbon of light. The fixtures and reflectors can be placed above the heads of people, yet still throw light onto the track. Crookham compares it to the intensely focused light that you see when the sun is reflected off your watch crystal.

Using the same technology, he eliminated the existing lighting vaults at ground level -- a security issue because they can hide people and are a magnet for bugs -- and redesigned lighting platforms placed on all four sides of the monument to shoot shafts of light to the top of the obelisk. He estimates that the new system uses half the energy of the old one while putting two to five times the amount of light on the monument. He was also able to give the monument a cleaner geometry at night by varying the levels on its four faces.

"By being able to throw light well," he says, "the rest of the world goes away. The whole focus is on what's important." That same sense of lighting as theater holds true of NASCAR and monuments in D.C. -- it's all about dissolving distractions, he says.


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