Gulf Tower beacon to rekindle Pittsburgh skyline

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It will not only inform Pittsburghers of current weather conditions, but the newly designed KDKA Weather Beacon at the Gulf Tower also will mark national holidays and great Pittsburgh sporting moments from individual home runs and touchdowns to Stanley Cup championships and Super Bowls.

And at the same time, the six-story LED light show at the top of the Gulf Tower on Grant Street will serve as an oft-changing public art display to the people of the Golden Triangle.

"We wanted to restore a historic element of the building and Downtown skyline -- almost like a gift to the city," said Larry Walsh, senior vice president with Rugby Realty.

PG graphic: The weather, according to the Gulf Tower
(Click image for larger version)

It is not a new idea. In fact, several generations of Pittsburghers might remember that the Gulf Tower used to forecast the weather for the next day, using red and blue, solid and flashing neon lights.

The idea first took root in 1932 and continued for several decades. However, as energy costs increased -- at one time the cost to operate the lights was equivalent to powering 28 homes -- the owners of the tower switched to high-pressure sodium lights in the 1970s.

"The technology just wasn't there until now to replace those fixtures with something efficient," Mr. Walsh said.

The owners sought out Cindy Limauro and her husband, Christopher Popowich, partners in C&C Lighting LLC to design the project.

Ms. Limauro, a professor of lighting design at Carnegie Mellon University who with Mr. Popowich designed the lighting for the Randy Pausch Memorial Bridge on campus, said they worked on this project for two years.

The 104 previously existing, 400-watt high-pressure sodium vapor lights have been replaced by 185 LED fixtures that use only 60 watts of electricity, she said.

The new lighting fixtures are each 4 feet long and include red, blue and green lights, which can produce every color of light, including white. Each fixture is made up of four 1-foot sections, which can be controlled individually, Ms. Limauro said.

"There really isn't any maintenance they have to worry about," she said.

The LEDs are rated up to 100,000 hours, and will only be on from dusk to dawn, meaning they should last for many years.

C&C Lighting was responsible for choosing the lighting fixtures, drafting the plans for electricians to install them and to provide instruction to the computer programmer to put their ideas into software.

They tested the beacon last week, with Ms. Limauro and Mr. Walsh watching from atop a parking garage at Penn Avenue and Ninth Street, to ensure everything was just right. They wanted to wait for a holiday for its first showing.

"There's no better one that goes on Downtown than the Fourth of July. It's the perfect holiday to kick it off," Mr. Walsh said.

The beacon will first be lit at 9:25 p.m. -- about 10 minutes before the city's fireworks display begins -- and will include its own 30-minute celebratory show.

"It's actually a combination of every imaginable color," Ms. Limauro said. "They're fireworks with light."

Once the show ends, the beacon will revert back to its red, white and blue patriotic holiday display.

At least 20 holidays will be marked with special programs, Ms. Limauro said. For Earth Day, she added, the beacon will be turned off.

The software and computer program that control the beacon's holiday programming has been pre-set for five years out.

But there will be opportunity for spur-of-the-moment changes -- like when a Pirate hits a home run or to celebrate a local sports team win.

Even for holidays -- such as St. Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day -- the beacon will revert from those color schemes to display the weather for five minutes on the hour.

The beacon's current weather forecast is controlled by a monitor mounted on top of the Gulf Tower's 39th floor. In years past, it was controlled by the security guard working at the Gulf Tower front desk, who turned a small dial on a rudimentary box.

Chris Pike, vice president and general manager for KDKA-TV, said his station is excited to be part of the project.

"It's certainly a part of Pittsburgh history," he said.

Mr. Pike anticipates the beacon will often be featured from the station's Gateway Center rooftop camera as part of its evening news.

"It's going to be a very visible part of Pittsburgh's skyline."

Ms. Limauro described the Gulf Tower beacon as one of her favorite projects to design.

She attributed that to the infinite possibilities available to her for color and motion, as well as the idea that she's creating public art in Pittsburgh and enhancing the skyline.

"This is very near the top," she said. "This was absolutely a visually exciting project to work on."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 4, 2012) During holidays the Gulf Tower's beacon will display the weather for 5 minutes on the hour. A story Tuesday gave an incorrect time period.

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. First Published July 3, 2012 4:00 AM


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