Rising 102 stories above the streets of Manhattan, the Empire State Building (ESB) is internationally recognized for its rich history, graceful Art Deco architecture, and elegant tower lights, which illuminate the top 30 stories with various color schemes to mark important anniversaries and events. Until recently, a team of electricians was required to change the colors of the high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting arrays positioned on the tower's 72nd and 81st floors. For each color change, this team would spend hours manually installing color disks on each fixture — a costly, high-maintenance procedure.
In 2012, building owner Anthony Malkin of Malkin Holdings, LLC, launched an initiative to modernize the tower by installing a more dynamic and energy-efficient lighting system. Philips Color Kinetics, the industry's premier LED lighting provider, was the clear choice for a partner in this immense project.
The design objective for the ambitious retrofit was to select and install a lighting solution capable of highlighting the tower's striking architectural details with the ESB's signature white light, while also adding the ability to change colors and lighting effects in real-time using a custom digital controller. As the prime contractor for this project, Philips Color Kinetics was tasked with developing a comprehensive turnkey solution that involved managing every aspect of the retrofit, from luminaire manufacturing to engineering and installation.
Due to the ESB's prominent appearance in the New York City skyline, the building owners required that the tower lights must be kept lit as usual every night during the installation. This meant that for every existing lighting fixture the installation team removed, a new LED fixture had to be installed, wired, and connected to a temporary lighting control solution that would adjust that fixture's color and intensity to perfectly match the fluorescent and HID fixtures around it — an unprecedented installation challenge.
For the tower's mast and bands, the installation team replaced the existing fluorescent tube lighting with two adjacent columns of linear LED luminaires featuring RGB and tunable white nodes.
The high-pressure sodium vapor floodlights that make up the tower's "halo," a ring of outward-facing circular lights above the mast resembling a string of pearls, were replaced with ColorBlast Powercore RGB LED floodlights used in a direct-view application.
The top 30 stories were formerly illuminated with rows of HID floodlights installed on rooftop setbacks wrapping around the 72nd and 81st floors. These lights were replaced with custom ColorReach Powercore floodlights featuring half RGB nodes and half 4000 K white-light nodes, allowing the tower to be washed in both saturated color and neutral white light. The sides of the 72nd floor were further retrofitted with both ColorGraze Powercore and iW Graze Powercore wall-grazing luminaires.
The project also brought to life the tower's fins, which had remained dark since a construction project removed their lighting system several years ago. These beautifully sculpted wings, positioned at the four corners of the mast, were illuminated with ColorReach Powercore floodlights.
Philips Color Kinetics developed a custom control solution exclusively for the project. This Ethernet-based system allows building staff to customize display programs and preview lighting effects in real-time, adjusting each individual fixture or lighting zone using an interactive visual representation of the tower. The system's astronomical clock can trigger light shows and scenes on certain dates or times of day, enabling the building's lighting timetable to be set months in advance.
As an additional benefit, the new lighting solution is predicted to consume approximately 73% less energy than the previous system, complementing the building's 21st century green renovation program.
On November 26, 2012, the building owners, in collaboration with iHeartRadio and Clear Channel Broadcasting, Inc., presented the tower's new lighting capabilities to the world with its grand debut, a live light show — the first ever for the iconic landmark — synchronized with two songs from Grammy® award-winning artist Alicia Keys.
At 9 p.m. ET that night, four local New York radio stations — Z100, KTU, Power 105.1, and Lite FM — simultaneously broadcast the music accompanying the light show. Listeners could tune in and hear an interview with Keys, a New York native, reflecting on the significance of transforming the ESB's iconic presence on the New York City skyline before pulling a switch that triggered the choreographed display. The entire program was streamed globally through iHeartRadio.com.
Following years of planning and more than six months of installation work, this revolutionary lighting retrofit has given the ESB a renewed dominance on the New York City skyline. In addition to dramatically reducing maintenance and simplifying the tower's scheduled solid-color light displays, the new system allows for dynamic, spontaneous light shows and unique performances that will further the building's status as a global icon for years to come.