Answer Man: Lighting up the Arch is for the birds

News-DemocratOctober 22, 2013 

In my opinion, having the Gateway Arch lit up at night would add much to a rather drab-looking St. Louis riverfront. By the fact that the Arch is not lit, I am thinking it may be due to economics or even the Federal Aviation Administration and overhead flights, but I'm just guessing. What's the real story? -- Dan Varady, of Belleville

What? The Arch not lit up enough for you? Why, that's for the birds, isn't it?

Well, as a matter of fact, it is -- at least in part.

No, I'm not making light of your thoughtful query. For four weeks out of the year -- the first two in May and the last two in September -- the Arch goes completely dark at night to keep our feathered friends from becoming disoriented and flying into the 630-foot-tall, stainless steel structure as they wing their way north and south.

"It's just a precaution," says Frank Mares, deputy superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which sits on one of the country's largest bird-migration routes -- the Mississippi Flyway.

"To my knowledge we've never had a bird hit the Arch when it was lit. But it's something we agreed to do with the local Audubon Society."

Of course, they've only had to worry about such collisions since the turn of the century. For more than three decades after it was topped out on Oct. 28, 1965, plans to show off the monument at night just never came to light.

"They did try some lighting tests through the years," Mares said. "Gosh, I've seen an old photo from the '60s with spotlights out there trying to light it, but it was always like shining a flashlight in a mirror. You just got this glaring, hot-spot nastiness. The technology at the time -- they just didn't have a way to do it that it looked any good."

Finally, in 1998, the Gateway Foundation ponied up $2.4 million to have Randy Burkett Lighting Design Inc., of Webster Groves, Mo., install a system that would cast the nocturnal Arch in its best light.

Burkett came up with a novel approach. Instead of putting the lights level with the base of the Arch, Burkett placed them in four pits and had them shine up. Not only that, but the beams from the lights on the right side are aimed at the left leg and vice versa.

Voila -- the "hot-spot nastiness" was eliminated and the system, first switched on in late 2001, earned awards of excellence from national engineering and lighting designer associations.

You might remember that when Pope John Paul II visited here in January 1999, MSNBC hauled in a temporary system so the Arch could be used in nighttime background shots. Many driving into St. Louis complained of the glare then, too.

Now, I think most people driving across the Poplar Street Bridge would agree that the new system casts the Arch in an aesthetically pleasing glow, the hours of which change with the season. Here's when you generally can expect to see it, according to the most recent schedule from Mares:

The lights are usually on from 8 p.m. to midnight in October, 6 p.m. to midnight from Nov. 1 to March 31 and 8 p.m. to midnight in April. Then, from May 1 to Sept. 30 (except for the four weeks for the birds), the lights first come on at 10 p.m. and go out at 1 a.m.

Why so late? Because during the summer, Arch visitors can take the trams to the top until 10 p.m. If the lights came on any earlier, their nighttime views out of the Arch windows would be ruined. In addition, the Arch is periodically rented out during the year by groups and businesses for after-hours galas. Almost all pay for tram use, Mares said, so on those nights the lights may come on late or not at all depending on how long the party goes.

For the record, each of the four pits have 11 1,000-watt lights that cost $800 each to replace according to Mares and the Gateway Foundation. This year alone, the foundation expects to spend $25,000 on electricity and another $25,000 on maintenance, according to Jen Sweet, the group's administrator. (See photos at www.gateway-foundation.org.)

So you are right about one thing: As you probably can guess from the utility bill, the Arch always has been dark during the wee hours to save money.

"It's on when the bulk of the people will be able to enjoy it," Mares said. "There was never any security aspect to it; it was purely aesthetic. It doesn't really help for security so there was no compelling reason to have them on all night long."

And, in the near future, the display may light up your life even more efficiently.

"There are newer technologies in the last 10 years that would do as good a job and cost even less," Mares said. "So we'll be looking into doing a retrofit here in the next couple of years."

Today's trivia

Which World Series was the first to see the home team win all seven games? (Hint: It also was the first to be played partly in a domed stadium.)

Answer to previous trivia: The National Hockey League added the penalty shot to its rule book for the 1934-35 season. At that time, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle, 38 feet from the goalmouth. Players awarded a penalty shot had to shoot from somewhere within the circle. On Nov. 13, 1934, the St. Louis Eagles' Ralph "Scotty" Bowman (no, not the former Blues coach) scored the first penalty shot in history in the old St. Louis Arena.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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