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St. Louis has set its sights on brightening the night by lighting the city’s historic art and monuments.

By Tom Kaczkowski

Along-time St. Louisan recently praised the “wonderful lighting of the new structure at Interstate 44 and Grand Avenue.” That “new” structure is the Compton Hill Water Tower, more than 100 years old and only recently floodlit.

While Paris will always be the “City of Lights,” St. Louis nights have brightened considerably in the last few years as many of the city’s historic monuments and architectural landmarks have been thoughtfully revealed after sunset with carefully crafted floodlighting.

St. Louis has a tremendous heritage of architectural landmarks and monuments, which are frequently overlooked by day. Nightfall presents an opportunity for the landmarks to shine with less visual competition and more contrast and drama against the night sky. Landmarks, which blend in by day, become prominent “beacons” by night.

Floodlighting presents a unique opportunity to render a building or structure in a manner in which it has never before been viewed. Local architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, Inc. has a dedicated group of lighting specialists who have been at the forefront of this resurgence in lighting St. Louis landmarks.

Historical Memories

The city’s three remaining water towers, built in the late 1800s and once used to regulate water pressure for sections of St. Louis, are among seven of their type still standing in the country. The 154-foot Grand Avenue (White) Water Tower at East Grand Avenue and 20th Street, and the 195-foot Bissell Street (Red) Water Tower at Bissell and Blair Avenue, were re-lit in 1998, illuminating the Grand Avenue Tower’s stuccoed brick white Corinthian column and the incredible brick detailing of the Bissell Tower’s upper round balcony. The 179-foot French Romanesque Compton Hill Water Tower on South Grand between I-44 and Russell Boulevard, was lit in 1996. All three have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s and recently received awards from the local Landmarks Association for site enhancement.

The Compton Hill Water Tower was lit in 1996

Another newly-lit monument is the majestic Old Courthouse, site of the first two trials of the Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850, and where Missouri’s women’s suffrage movement leader Virginia Minor’s case for a women’s right to vote came to trial in the 1870s. Floodlighting was designed to have a minimal impact on the Courthouse’s historic fabric and facilitate ease of future maintenance. At midnight, timers extinguish all floodlights except two cross-aimed from opposite courtyards to illuminate the American flag.

Community Involvement

Lighting design is far from an exact science. The design process, which involves trial and error, can sometimes be as rewarding as the end result. The Compton Hill Water Tower neighborhood viewed a floodlighting test and voted on their favorite light source, ironically ended in a tie. Long-term maintenance issues swung the decision to “yellow” high-pressure sodium lighting due to their greater longevity than the alternative choice, “white” metal halide light sources.

Neighborhood residents also attended the mockups for the Red and White Towers and provided input for the selection of each monument’s floodlighting.

Advances in Lighting Technology

Advances in lighting technology have given lighting designers a much broader palette of lighting equipment to use. Yesterday’s broad washes of short-lived incandescent light fixtures are today complemented by long-lived high intensity discharge light fixtures capable of delivering extremely precise “beams” or “shafts” of light tailored to each application.

“Coloring” light using glass filters or colored light bulbs is a floodlighting technique that can further celebrate a building and its community as illustrated in the floodlighting of the historic 1930s Civil Courts Building on the Gateway Mall.

The floodlighting systems include interchangeable color filters, which can be installed to celebrate St. Louis sports teams and holiday seasonal colors. Installation of the lighting system took place in June.

St. Louis Heritage – Forest Park

Historic Forest Park is the site of many new lighting developments. The park was dedicated at a public ceremony on August 24, 1876, and continues to play an important role in the life of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Its 1,300-plus acres remain one of the largest urban parks in the country.

Top: Statue of King Louis IX
Left: Statue of Francis Preston Blair Jr.
Right: Statue of General Franz Sigel

The floodlighting of the Statue of King Louis IX, atop Art Hill, north of the Saint Louis Art Museum, was also unveiled in June. A mixture of white and yellow light illuminate the dark bronze material of this recently restored statue.

The World’s Fair Pavilion was built in 1909 by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Committee as a shelter and refreshment stand for the benefit of the public, and was a gift to the city as part of a pledge to “fully restore the park” following the 1904 World’s Fair. Located on top of Government Hill, it offers some of the most beautiful views in Forest Park.

Above: World's Fair Pavilion

Its recent restoration included new lighting, which made the monument visible and comfortable to view at night from a distance and still contribute to night event celebrations. Below-grade light pits, lights tucked under the eves of the building’s overhangs, and lights concealed in the non-public balconies create the pavilion’s new look.

Lighting historic buildings and monuments usually involves a conscious effort to conceal the light sources. Occasionally, the light fixture itself becomes inspirational. New twin-headed light fixtures recently installed in Forest Park around the Missouri History Museum and Pagoda Circle in front of the Muny Opera have been well received by St. Louisans. The HOK Lighting Group worked closely with the Forest Park Steering Committee to create a light fixture appropriate for the character of the park by day and at night. The new Forest Park “Twins” design was inspired by St. Louis’ rich history of decorative street lighting, some of which still survive in limited areas throughout the city.

Sometimes we look to the past for floodlighting inspiration. The Continental Building in Mid-town/Grand Center is slated for renovation by Owen Development. The building’s signature red neon beacon, long since removed, will potentially be recreated by state-of-the-art fiber optic technology, capable of changing colors at the flip of a switch.

Above: 1930 Vintage photograph of the
Continental Life Building

At the heart of this lighting resurgence is St. Louis’s renewed sense of civic pride in its architectural heritage and efforts to reinforce the St. Louis region as an active, thriving and safe metropolis by day and by night.

Lighting of St. Louis’ many landmarks and monuments restores historic memories, instills civic pride and uplifts the spirit by making a positive impact on the visual environment of St. Louis.


The Gateway Arch symbolizes St. Louis as a crossroads for travelers – the threshold where East transforms to West. Yet, it does not beckon the traveler at night as it does in the day – its symbolism is lost to the night. “I think about it every time I fly into St. Louis at night and strain my eyes to make out the Arch in the blackness below” says Douglas R. Martin, executive vice president of the St. Louis Chapter, National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). “To see the Gateway to the West glimmering from afar would add so much to the city’s storied place in the building of this country.” NECA partners with IBEW Local #1 to form the St. Louis Electrical Connection. Back in the early 1980s NECA and IBEW Local # 1 teamed with Sachs Electric Co. and first approached the National Park Service about lighting the Gateway Arch.

“At the time, we were exploring the potential of lighting the Arch as a gift to the city to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the IBEW,” says Robert G. Miller, business manager of the IBEW #1. “The Coast Guard objected, because it feared the glare from the Arch would hinder the navigation of barge traffic,” Miller notes. “There were also concerns about vandalism and cost.”

MSNBC brought the issue to the forefront again in January of last year, when it flooded the Arch with lights to use as a backdrop for their coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis.

HOK’s Tom Kaczkowski would like to see the Arch lit at night but acknowledges the aesthetic challenges. “The mirror-like qualities of the Arch that make it so striking and kinetic by day work against lighting at night as the Arch reflects most direct light,” Kaczkowski says. “Controlling the light reflections from key viewing positions to the Arch will be critical.

A lighting design, funded by Gateway Foundation and designed by Randy Burkett Lighting Design Inc. has been developed, according to Ken Schaefer, deputy superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. “Up to 40 lights would be housed in trenches on either side of the Arch legs. The trenches would be covered with a screen to prevent visitors and trash from falling into it.”

“The lights targeting the base of the Arch would have to cast a wide, low-intensity beam,” says Terry Lewis, project manager for Sachs Electric. “As you move up the legs of the Arch and away from the lights, the beams would have to become more intense and focused.” Lewis suggested the very top of the Arch might have to be lit with lasers.

Schaefer estimates the total installation cost to be between $500,000 and $1 million and annual cost of power would range from $10,000 to $15,000. “Since the Park Service is under a federal mandate to reduce energy costs, some other agency would have to foot the electric bill,” Schaefer says.

Should it be lit? Schaefer says that architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the Arch, was silent on the issue. If the idea is to go forward, it faces a stringent compliance review, beginning with the Missouri State Historic Preservation Office and including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington D.C. and the National Park Service.

Tom Kaczkowski, AIA heads HOK’s Lighting Group, which has designed illumination for other key buildings and monuments in St. Louis including America’s Center, Metropolitan Square, Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse, the Missouri Historical Museum Expansion, the Saint Louis Art Museum main facade, and many notable Forest Park monuments.




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