I’ll never forget that view: the skyline of Chicago awash in green lights. It was an evening in 2006 or so and I was making my regular drive north from where I was living, in Lexington, KY, to my hometown of Milwaukee. I never, ever took the bypass, preferring to take I-94 straight through downtown Chicago, enjoying the views, not caring if there there were traffic delays.
On that drive, I noticed that all of Chicago’s skyscrapers were illuminated in green. I thought: wow, I had never noticed that Chicago was all green before. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me quite a length on that drive to realize: it was for St. Patrick’s Day!
How cool was that? I had seen the Empire State Building with its changing colors of lights, but I had never seen another city skyline change colors with the seasons and events. This made me love Chicago all the more.
When I moved here, I was especially fascinated by the color display. And it seems to be growing more festive and varied as the years go by, with more buildings getting in on the colorful illumination.
Inspiration likely came from the Empire State Building in NYC: its famous floodlights were added in 1964, but it was 1976 (for The Bicentennial?) that started the whole colors scheme. The building displayed the expected colors for St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and sports teams, but went further with a colorful variety of causes and even using blue when ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ passed away. The current schedule is quite ambitious.
From what I can gather, Chicago skyscrapers began changing light colors in the late 1990s (if you have more information or memories about this, please let me know).
The Willis (Sears) Tower’s two white antennae take to color very well. The building’s management and electricians choose color combinations like red and green for Christmas, pink for breast cancer awareness, and blue and orange to celebrate major Bears victories. Usually two building engineers go out on the 108th and 109th floor rooftops – in all kinds of weather – to change the colored theatrical gels on the massive lamps by hand. The Chicago Architecture Foundation has a fun video in their Skyline Stories series that shows how they do it.
The Willis (Sears) Tower has its own online schedule, which is a great reference to the colors. Pink is used for Mother’s Day and Breast Cancer Awareness. Blue is used in February for the Rotary Club, in April for Earth Day, in May for Memorial Day, along with red for the Fourth of July, along with gold (orange) in August for the first Bears home game, and in September for The Chicago Police Memorial Foundation. Gold (orange) is used in March for National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness and for Halloween. Red is used for American Heart Association and Valentine’s Day, in March for Red Cross Day and along with green for the December holidays. Purple is used in September for the Alzheimer’s Association and in November for Pancreatic Cancer awareness. Aqua or Teal is used in September for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. And finally, back to green: it is used for St. Patrick’s Day, of course, and also, along with blue for Earth Day, and at the holidays.
In between times, most skyscrapers in Chicago default to white lights.
And it appears there is little to no coordination between buildings as to what color and when. I find this hard to believe, but I can’t find anything that shows coordination (again, if you have information about this, please let me know).
The John Hancock Center’s distinctive band of white lights, known as its “crown of lights,” changes colors, too. Two building engineers climb a ladder from the 98th floor to a catwalk on the 99th floor to access the lights. There are actually 552 eight-foot-tall light tubes, in pairs inside cabinets that open from the back. The rear wall of the cabinet is white to reflect the light. The engineers remove each light, slide them into colored gel sleeves and re-install. It takes them about 40 hours to complete the job. Geoffrey Baer answers questions about this process and takes us on a fascinating video visit. They look forward to the day when LED fixtures will be installed and color changes will be accomplished from the building manager’s office.
With all of the inherent symbolism and celebration, Chicago’s skyline is colorfully vibrant all year-round.
Do you remember Lower Wacker Drive bathed in green light? I’m from Milwaukee and I do. On visits to the city in the 1980s, my husband, who had lived in Chicago, took us driving down through ‘The Emerald City.’
I recently went looking for images of this subterranean world of green; difficult to find, for some reason. But I was very happy to come across a feature in the Chicago Tribune from 1996 lamenting the loss of the green lights by Ellen Warren (@ellenwarreninfo).
Apparently in the mid-1990s the State of Illinois Department of Transportation decided to replace the lights. As Warren writes, “Without so much as a Studs Terkel commentary, a City Council proclamation or a decent Irish wake, over the last few years, the green lights vamoosed, replaced by little yellowish square boxes like something you’d find in Seattle or Atlanta, or, God forbid, L.A.”
The 769 six-foot-long green fluorescent tubes had been installed in the 1950s – “it was thought that their wacky color would cast more light than the normal fluorescent bulb, making it easier for motorists to negotiate the diabolical obstacle course of barriers, pillars, islands and other hazards on Lower Wacker.”
And as Warren so beautifully frames it: “No one expected that several generations of motorists, shortcutters, patrons of the Billy Goat tavern and others would come to think of the green sheen as part of their Chicago heritage.”
I found two 1960s postcard images (one is the featured image) that show the unmistakable green glow emitting from Lower Wacker Drive (thanks to John Chuckman):
Tomorrow in Chicago Green: The River