THE LIGHTS OF THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
Visitors and residents of New York City may notice that in the evening, the top part of the Empire State Building is illuminated. The more observant among them may also notice that the colors change depending on the day (Well, they used to, anyway; see below for more details). These light patterns are used to celebrate different holidays and observances.
HISTORY OF THE LIGHTS
The idea of shining lights from the top of the building dates back to at least 1932, when a light was shone from the top to announce Franklin D. Roosevelt's
presidency. In 1956, four rotating beacons were placed atop the tower, supposedly to represent "not only a welcome to this country but also the unlimited opportunities in America and the hopes and prayers of the American people for peace". How this was supposed to be represented by four really bright lights shining into the sky is beyond the scope of this node. Supposedly, the lights could be seen up to 300 miles away (as a reference, both Boston and Washington, DC are less than 300 miles from NYC).
These lights, somewhat unsurprisingly, drew many complaints. It became impossible to simply view the night sky, since the floodlights washed everything out. Astronomy professors from as far away as Yale (about 80 miles) complained about the lights interfering with their research. At some helpfully unmentioned date, the lights were abandoned in favor of simply lighting the top of the building, and new spotlights were installed outside the 72d floor for this purpose.
The first obvious mention of the lighted tower was in 1964 for the World's Fair, hosted that year in New York. The colors didn't start until 1976, when the tower was lit red, white, and blue for the American bicentennial celebration. A more local touch was added in 1977, when, as perdedor (now saved by toalight) mentioned, the New York Yankees' colors of blue and white were shown to celebrate the team's World Series victory. As the years went by, the designers went more and more insane, up until today (ok, a year ago) where there are over 30 different schemes for different parts of the year.
THE COLOR SCHEMES
The Director of Public Relations (Lydia Ruth, as of this writing), chooses the colors for each event and when the building should be lit, with help from building management. As mentioned, there are over 30 color schemes used within the year, along with additional schemes for events that might happen (such as the national victory of a local team, or other such wondrous events). There are three sections to the tower, each able to take one color. The schedule planned for 2002 was as follows:
(note: all colors bottom to top)
March of Dimes (16 Jan): all three green; green is supposed to represent folic acid (no, really).
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (21 Jan): red, black, and green
Valentine's Day (14 Feb): red
President's Day (18 Feb): red, white, and blue
St. Patrick's Day (17 Mar): green
Greek Independence Day (25 Mar): white and blue
Rain Forest Day (April, unspecified): green
Easter Week/Spring: white and yellow
Israel Independence Day (28 Apr): blue, white, and blue
Armed Forces Day (18 May): red, white, and blue
Memorial Day (27 May): red, white, and blue
Police Memorial Day (May, unspec.): blue (the NYPD color)
Portugal Day (10 June): red, yellow, and green
Flag Day (14 June): red, white, and blue
Stonewall Anniversary (21-23 June): lavender and white
Independence Day (4 Jul): red, white, and blue
India Independence Day (13-15 Aug): green, white, and yellow
Pakistan Independence Day (24-26 Aug): green and white
Labor Day (1-3 Sep): red, white, and blue
Brazil Independence Day (7 Sep): yellow and green
Pulaski Day (Sep, unspec.): white and red ( trainman says this is probably the Revolutionary War hero Pulanski, but thinks it should be in October)
Breast Cancer Awareness (Sep, unspec.): white and pink
German Reunification Day (3 Oct): black, yellow, and red
United Nations Day (24 Oct): white and blue
Autumn (early November): yellow and red
Veterans' Day (10-11 Nov): red, white, and blue
Chanuka: blue, white, and blue
Aids Awareness "Night Without Lights" (1 Dec): black (i'm guessing this means "off")
Holiday Season: (1 Dec - 7 Jan): red and green
The lights are usually left on until midnight except for five days when they are lit until 3 AM: Christmas Eve and Day, New Year's Eve and Day, and St. Patrick's Day; the latter celebrated because ground was first broken for the building on 17 March, 1930. The lights are also turned off during migrating season, so that birds won't fly into the building. Recently, the blue lights have been left on all night due to work being done in the area.
The colors are changed much as one would expect: the spotlights are covered with gels, much like in theatre work. The tower itself contains five panels of fluorescent lights, each one havingfive colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and white); a switch is turned to rotate the panels to display the appropriate color. All this is performed by the building's staff electricians.
Of course, most of this color switching did not happen in 2002. Instead, most of the year the tower was lit red, white and blue mostly** in memoriam of the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. The lights were changed for Valentine's Day (i believe) and for Police Memorial Day in May, but most of the rest of the calendar has been ignored. The tower was also lit purple and gold in celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee (3 June) and, in a rare breach of policy aimed at bringing businesses back to New York, the tower was lit yellow for Snapple, who apparently brought the most business back. The building management claims that the building will return to its normal schedule very soon.
** I say "mostly" in memoriam because it is not purely out of magnanimity that the tower remains in the American colors. After the attacks, many of the television broadcasting companies were forced to move their antennas to the Empire State Building, and the easiest place to put them was among the lighting equipment. The lights have thus remained unchanged for fear that the electricians might damage the equipment while changing the gels. The management hopes to rectify the situation soon.
http://www.esbnyc.com/tourism (esp. the Tourism FAQ)
(quote from http://www.raymondloewyfoundation.com/about/casestudy/freedomlights.html)