Light at heart 

Who’s behind the lights of Philly’s most icon­ic night­time landmarks?

5 minute read
A signal of better days to come? Philly leaves the lights on for us all. (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)
A signal of better days to come? Philly leaves the lights on for us all. (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)

From space, we in Philly are part of a streak of light that burns the night sky from Boston to DC. Down here, we are each a flicker of life, living-room windows glowing behind blinds still half drawn against the heat of the fading day.

As I write this, my dad is in the hospital a hundred miles down that corridor of light. I haven’t seen him or Mom since we all went into lockdown. They live in Virginia now, but they both grew up in Philly; had their first apartment together on Broad Street. Dad still loves the Philadelphia Orchestra, though he swears it hasn’t been the same since Eugene Ormandy was conductor.

I live just a few blocks from where they started out, and the connection rises up through the pavement that they walked, the steps my dad climbed as a teenager to the Academy of Music. The city lights they watched from that big window on Broad have changed, but it is still their city. And the lights still shine.

Signs of hope

Here on the ground, we each have our stories: some joyful, some filled with tragedy. But you don’t really know the city until the sun goes down and the lights come up. That’s when the city tells the story of itself. Forces as small as the bedside lamp in a sleepless room and as large as the beacon on the Comcast Tower sculpt the city with light.

Tom Forkin, deputy director of properties and partnerships for the Department of Parks and Recreation, is responsible for the exterior LED lights at Boathouse Row. The schools and rowing clubs (the Schuylkill Navy) are responsible for the upkeep of their boat houses, but Forkin turns them into a fairytale village at night. The lights are an iconic piece of Philadelphia.

“I think the lighting was inspired,” Forkin said. “It’s remarkable, and the way it reflects off the Schuylkill River, it’s just gorgeous.” The lights are programmed with 75 color combinations. In April, Boathouse Row glowed blue for frontline healthcare workers. The request for Juneteenth gave him a tight deadline, but Forkin said they already had Kwanzaa programmed into their app. “I took the seventh night of Kwanzaa and I used those colors and they were very pleased.”

Forkin thinks of the lights as a barometer of the city. “Post-pandemic,” he says, “it is a sign of hope, by signaling better days are ahead.”

The lights at home

Most of us live in humbler digs—rowhouses, mid-rises, slivers of apartments carved out of gilded-age mansions—our built lives punctuated by the skyscrapers that have grown to shape the Philadelphia skyline. One and Two Liberty Place were the first towers in the city to stand taller than Billy Penn’s hat. Over the decades, changing ownership has split up the buildings, but Edward Siegler, the operations manager of Two Liberty Place, says he has “for want of a better term, a gentleman’s agreement” with One Liberty Place to coordinate the lights at the top of the building.

“I think the colored lights are what define the look of a city after hours,” Siegler said. “That’s a tremendous thing. I remember growing up as a kid watching the TV show Dallas. You always knew the Ewing Oil Building by the X lights on the building. That kind of lighting defines the city you are in.” Siegler refers to the Comcast Towers and the One and Two Liberty Place as iconic lights of the city, and feels a moral obligation to keep the lights burning, though with an eye to conserving energy. The lights are LEDs.

Siegler lives in the suburbs now, but he grew up in Philly and says it will always be home. “There’s an electricity about this city that is just undeniable. I love being in the city. You can look at these lights and think, “home.”

An iconic piece of Philadelphia: Boathouse Row at night. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.)
An iconic piece of Philadelphia: Boathouse Row at night. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Parks and Recreation.)

Across the river

Across the Schuylkill River, horizontal bands of light ladder the whole length of the FMC building. It is the job of Scott Mitchell, director of operations for University City for Brandywine Realty Trust, to support the building and management teams in their buildings around 30th and Market, including the lights.

According to chief engineer Roman Mysko Jr., the façade lights can be coordinated in a system-wide network, thousands of lights all tied into a MAP file, so that they can have colors—shows—programmed across buildings. A show can be colors drifting across the building in a loop, or as complicated as the design coordinated with the NFL for the 2018 draft. Mitchell explained that when a team would come up on the draft, its logo would appear, synchronized across the FMC building, the parking garage, and the Cira Center: “If you were looking from the art museum, you could see the Philadelphia Eagles wing rolling off one building onto the next.”

Like the other keepers of the LED flame, Mitchell and Mysko are almost poetic when they talk about the lights. Mysko loves the effect of the lights on the water: “I think it adds a bit of movement and artwork to the building,” he said. "They make you think."

“It’s like an awakening of the night," Mitchel said. "Hey, we’re here, the building is here, University City is here, things are happening over here.”

Light and warmth

The bright lights matter now more than ever, but my heart is warmed by the sparkle in the windows: the warm glow of a living-room light, the brighter glint in the office building as the cleaning staff go about their business and the second shift comes in. As Siegler said, “You know somebody is there. What would Rittenhouse Square look like if the lights were off? What would Boathouse Row look like? What would the skyline look like if all you saw was the aircraft beacons? You are morally bound to keep that going.”

Special thanks to Cynthia Lee of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Philadelphia for facilitating my outreach to the buildings in this article.

Image descriptions:

A view of Center City Philadelphia from a high-rise window, including residential and office buildings with bright yellow windows and skyscrapers with neon trim against a clear sky.

A view of the waterfront Boathouse Row at night from the other side of the river, trimmed in lines of blue and yellow lights that the water reflects.

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