Silent Night, Weird Night and a Game of Landmark Laser Tag

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Christmas at City Hall, December 7, 2005. Photograph by Dick Gouldey.

As far as Walt Whitman was concerned, light did right by Philadelphia City Hall. Encountering the building’s unfinished “magnificent proportions” one evening, Whitman wrote of “a majestic and lovely show there in the moonlight—flooded all over, façades, myriad silver-white lines and carv’d heads and mouldings, with the soft dazzle—silent, weird, beautiful…” Foreshadowing Andy Warhol’s quip about fleeting fame, Whitman added: “I know that never when finish’d will that magnificent pile impress one as it impress’d me those fifteen minutes.”

We can only guess if Whitman would have been as impressed by the theatrical holiday lighting of City Hall’s portals in 2005. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, architectural historian George Thomas recalled Whitman and critiqued the project as “less silent and more weird.” Reporter Amy Rosenberg wondered: “Is it art deco or Victorian? Did the Mummers have something to do with it?” Could it have been “something out of Disney? … People who come to see it often don’t know what to make of it.”

City photographer Dick Gouldey captured the special effects on both east portal (illustrated) and west portal (seen here) in versions of the four, rotating lighting schemes that challenged traditional expectations. Covering all bases, the City also put up a traditional evergreen and strung it with lights. Gouldey photographed that, too.

Six years have come and gone and we’ve not heard calls for more of this brand of landmark lighting. If anything, the public memory of this $300,000 production mounted by the Center City District is fading to black. Blame a preference for traditionalism; blame the recession—we’ve never seen anything like it since. And that seems to be OK.

Not that we haven’t used theatrical lighting on historical buildings. For decades, city planner Ed Bacon had promoted the idea of developing such a project to create sets for public performances. In the 1990s, that idea morphed into Lights of Liberty which has become part of Philly’s repertoire to help tell the story of 1776.

By contrast, the City Hall portal project seemed to be light for light’s sake. Its designers borrowed from the most advanced theater lighting techniques and digital photography, but other than the technology itself, the finished work shared no story; it offered no narrative.

The public’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the 2005 project begs the question: Can a state-of-the-art “fusion of theatre, artistic programming, theatrical design and lighting,” devoid of narrative also be successful? Or does the public need more than a heady collaboration of international creatives (Artlumiere and Casa Magica) and their “extraordinary new form of expression,” even if they deliver on their promise of visibility “along the entire length of Market Street”? There’s more to success than visibility.

The very same special effects had been used “to create a destination and a sense of place” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, an Apple Computer store in Paris, and other sites around the world. But Philadelphia’s formula for success is more demanding, more complex. Philadelphia already has a sense of place. What folks here want is fireworks and freedom, the spark and the story. Otherwise, the special effects might be impressive, but they’ll amount to little more than an expensive game of landmark laser tag.