PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For decades, people knew they could look at the lights at the top of the Gulf Tower to get the weather.
That is until the 1970s, when the weather beacon was turned off.
However, starting this Wednesday, July 4, an impressive new version of the beacon will return.
We’re proud to say it’ll be called the KDKA-TV Weather Beacon atop the Gulf Tower.
For decades, it was Pittsburgh’s tallest skyscraper, but it was its flashing weather beacon that Pittsburghers loved.
Post cards were printed so people knew how to read the solid or flashing, red or blue neon light.
The building’s electrician remembers it all.
“If it was blinking blue, it was precipitation and dropping temperatures,” Denny King said.
Apparently, that was the forecast when part of a movie about Led Zeppelin was filmed here in the early 1970s because for a split second, as they come out of the Liberty Tubes, you can see the flashing blue of the weather beacon.
In the building’s lobby, the controls for the old system are still in place.
A rotary phone might make you think they had a special line devoted to getting the latest weather information, but the truth is less impressive.
“The security guard twice a day would check the newspaper and determine what the weather was going to be for the next 12 hours,” Larry Walsh from Rugby Realty said.
Lights in the lobby still exist that showed the guard which setting he had selected for the beacon.
The beacon, however, used as much electricity as powering 24 households, so during the energy crisis in the 70s, Gulf Oil that thought that was bad publicity.
As a result, the lights on the pyramid were turned off. By the time the crisis was over, the neon lights no longer worked.
The building’s current owners, who are based in New York, admire the LED lights used on the Empire State Building and decided it was time to bring back the weather beacon.
They turned to the award-winning Pittsburgh lighting team of Chris Popowich and Cindy Limauro.
“Oh my God, this is just like a dream come true,” Limauro said.
They were part of a group that also lit a building in Belgium.
One of their coolest projects is right here in Pittsburgh on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus.
It’s called the Randy Pausch Memorial Bridge and it honors the professor famous for his ‘last lecture.’
They also lit the Hunt Library at CMU and did the lighting at the old Hall of Dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum.
The husband and wife team own C&C Lighting and Limauro also runs the lighting program at CMU’s School of Drama.
But lighting the top six stories of an iconic Pittsburgh landmark was a challenge even for them.
A total of 730 one-foot sections of LED lights were put into place. They painstakingly mapped out what each light will do and then worked to program them.
“They either turn on, they flicker, they flash, any effect our little heart desires is a possibility,” Chris Popowich said.
They have a display for the Fourth of July that simulates fireworks as well as designs for other holidays and events including Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Saint Patrick’s Day and even pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
They also have black and gold displays for Steelers, Pirates and Penguins celebrations.
But most of the time, the beacon is about weather.
Rather than predicting the weather, a monitor on top of the building will allow the beacon to display the current conditions.
Here’s how it works:
The top three floors show temperature. Blue is cooler – red is hotter.
The next level down is precipitation. Blueish purple means less rain and snow is falling, reddish purple means more.
Next is humidity. Dark green is more humid, light green is more dry.
Finally, the lowest level is wind speed, Magenta is windy, pink is less so.
Even if you don’t remember what it all means, the lights are designed to be a moving work of art and they take a lot less power than the old ones.
KDKA-TV also has a camera on the roof of our building in Gateway Center that is pointed at the KDKA-TV Weather Beacon. As a result, we can always show you the KDKA-TV Weather Beacon in our weather forecasts.
The lights will only run from sundown to sunrise and it debuts this Wednesday, July 4, at 9:20 p.m. before the fireworks show.