Everything You Need to Know About the Empire State Building’s Lights

Light displays on buildings are a common way to signify important occasions or show support for causes, and the Empire State Building, one of America’s most iconic skyscrapers, is no exception. Since its construction in the 1930s, various types of lights have been used to mark historic events and commemorate important accomplishments.

The tower’s searchlight was first illuminated in November of 1932 to signal the victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over Herbert Hoover. Ironically, Hoover officially opened the building the year before by turning on the building’s lights by pressing a button located right here in DC.Empire State Building

Since then, the building has been illuminated in practically every color to recognize everything from holidays and causes to pop culture icons and corporations. Perfect for cocktail party small talk or the winning point in Trivial Pursuit, here’s a brief history of the Empire State Building’s colorful past.

In 1956, four large beacon lights were installed atop the tower as a welcoming symbol of freedom to visitors. These were known as “The Freedom Lights.”

In 1964, the beacons were replaced by floodlights, which were installed to light up the tower in honor of the New York World’s Fair.

In November of 1973, the tower lights were turned off because of an ongoing energy crisis. They have not turned on again until July 3rd, 1974.

Colored displays

In 1976, the Empire State Building was lit up in color for the first time. Colored floodlights were installed to honor America’s Bicentennial by displaying red, white, and blue for the whole city to see. This was just the beginning of the colored displays:

  • In 1995, the tower shone blue during the rollout of the new blue M&Ms
  • In 2004, the tower shone green on Popeye’s 75th anniversary to represent the sailor’s love of spinach
  • In January of 2012, the tower was lit in red, orange, and yellow in honor of the 60th anniversary of NBC’s The Today Show
  • In June of 2012, in June, the building was lit in blue and white to honor the 29th annual Celebrate Israel Parade

Due to popular demand, in 2006, the Lighting Partner program was established to provide a system to screen and approve lighting display requests. The building now displays a message in lights most days of the year, but when there isn’t a special occasion to mark, the tower simply shines its signature white light. Anyone can apply to become a lighting partner and request a colorful display in honor of their cause, but the Empire State Building’s website notes that the tower will not be lit up for personal events (such as birthdays, anniversaries, or weddings), commercial events, political campaigns, or religious figures.

The Empire State Building shone green on the 25th anniversary of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, but it also has another type of green streak: the tower went dark in support of Earth Hour in 2008, and during certain times of the year, the lights are dimmed to limit distractions to migratory birds. The lights are typically turned off at midnight every night.

The building has made solemn remembrances as well. The building was lit in red, white, and blue for several months after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In 2004, the tower went dark for 15 minutes to mark the death of actress Fay Wray, who starred in the 1933 movie, King Kong. 

Each year, there are many regular lighting displays to mark recurring occasions – for instance, the building has shone in pink and white for breast cancer awareness on designated days since 1990, as well as for several other awareness campaigns.

The Empire State Building supports local sports teams by displaying team colors during home games – orange, blue, and white for the Knicks, and red, white, and blue for the Rangers. It also turns the tennis ball yellow for the US Open tournament during August and September.

Of course, the tower regularly marks the occurrence of holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas, and so on.

Light shows

In 2012, the Empire State Building got a facelift – it unveiled its new, sophisticated LED lighting system, which is powered by high-speed computers instead of relying on plastic gels, and is capable of displaying 16 million different colors instead of the previous nine. This opened a whole new world of lighting displays, including synchronized light shows and moving pictures.

In November of 2012, Alicia Keys became the first artist to be featured in a synchronized light show. Select radio stations in the New York area played two of her most popular songs, and the tower’s lights danced in rhythm. Several notable shows have followed:

  • In 2014, the Super Bowl showcased a light show during half time
  • In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art designed a light show to mark the opening of the Whitney’s Renzo Piano-designed building and the 84th anniversary of the Empire State Building
  • On July 4th, 2015, the Grateful Dead put on a synchronized light show to celebrate Independence Day and the band’s 50th anniversary

Moving images

August of 2015 marked the first time that moving images were ever displayed on the Empire State Building. Moving scenes of endangered wildlife, from a snow leopard to a manta ray, were projected across the south side of the building in a three-hour show to raise awareness about the plight of these animals. The display was in conjunction with the documentary, Racing Extinction, produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society. It was so stunning that it was shared all over social media and the Internet.

To learn about other causes and events that were commemorated by the Empire State Building’s light displays, you can check out the complete calendar online.

If you want to show your support for causes – in a smaller way, of course – contact Enlightened Lighting to find out how you can use your residential lights to mimic New York’s iconic landmark!