PITTSBURGH — The bright lights at the top of the Gulf Tower are the latest in high-tech and efficient LED lights, but the building’s iconic pyramid sat dark for over a decade after the energy crisis prompted them to be switched off. On March 25, 1990, the lights returned and were upgraded again in 2012.
Construction on the Gulf Tower was completed in 1932. The headquarters for the Gulf Oil Company, the 44-story building was the tallest in Pittsburgh until the U.S. Steel Tower opened in 1971. The signature feature of the tower is the top of the tower, which is modeled after the ancient Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in Turkey.
The lights on the building’s pyramid became an instant landmark and popular among Pittsburghers for their color-coded weather predictions using Gulf’s corporate colors of blue and orange. The company even printed out postcards to help Pittsburghers decode the lights.
The lights weren’t as high-tech as some assumed or set by a meteorologist, at least not directly. Twice a day, the security guard would check the newspaper and then set controls housed in the building’s lobby.
As the energy crisis took hold in the 1970s, Gulf Oil decided to turn off the weather beacon’s lights in 1974. The neon display used as much electricity as 24 homes. Unfortunately, when the crisis was over, the lights no longer worked.
High-pressure sodium vapor lights were installed and the tower once again illuminated on March 25, 1990. The 104 fixtures were an improvement over the original neon tubes, but they were still not efficient at 400 watts each.
During this time, the lighting scheme on the tower was a simple architectural highlight with a brighter light in the lantern at the pinnacle of the pyramid. The lantern would change from blue to orange in homage to the original weather beacon and alternate between steady and flashing, depending on the forecast. Technology and energy costs at the time didn’t allow for color-changing or dynamic displays on the pyramid’s steps.
It wasn’t until Pirates fans noticed in 2001 that the lantern flashed after a home run or a win that Pittsburghers started paying attention to the top of the Gulf Tower again. Pirates announcer Lanny Frattare found out that the person switching the light on and off was the building’s receptionist, Regina Taylor, who listened to games on a small radio at her desk. Frattare soon adopted a new home run catchphrase: “Flash the beam, Regina – that one’s out of here!”
After the Empire State Building in New York City debuted upgraded LED light displays, the New York-based owners of the Gulf Tower were inspired to revive the landmark’s skyline appeal. They hired acclaimed light designers Chris Popowich and Cindy Limauro to reignite the weather beacon.
730-foot-long strips of LEDs were placed on the tower’s pyramid. Each of the 185 fixtures is capable of a rainbow of colors and can be adapted for special holiday and sports-related displays. They’re also about 75% more efficient at about 60 watts of electricity for each 4 foot fixture, made of individually controlled 1-foot sections. The new lights debuted on July 4, 2012.
Unlike in its earlier iteration, the current weather beacon is actually connected to weather instruments. Sensors and a live weather center provide real-time data that integrates with the computer system that controls the lights.
The weather beacon operates from sundown to sunrise, except when it is otherwise honoring holidays, social causes or celebrating sports. For instance, the tower glows green for St. Patrick’s Day and pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. At the top of every hour, the tower reverts to the weather beacon for five minutes.
The tower’s beacon can also be accessed from auxiliary controls located in the press boxes at PNC Park and PPG Paints Arena. A button push activates lighting effects to celebrate a Pirate home run, Penguins goal or a win.
The weather beacon’s color codes are a lot more complex in its revived configuration. The top three floors (42-44) display temperature, from cool blue to warm red. The 41st floor corresponds to the rain forecast: blueish means less, reddish means more. Nearer the base of the pyramid, the 40th floor indicates humidity: the darker the green, the more humid it is. The bottom of the pyramid, on the 39th floor, is a wind speed indicator. When wind speeds are higher, the pinkish lights will skew to a more intense magenta.
Cox Media Group