Who Coordinates The Lights On Charlotte's Skyscrapers?
Editor's note: A version of this episode was originally published on Aug. 11, 2020.
If you’ve ever looked at the Charlotte skyline at night, you might have noticed that sometimes all of the buildings are lit up the same color — all red for Valentine’s Day or all blue for a Panthers game.
“I noticed — probably along I-77 when I was driving — that the lights all seemed to be coordinated. So I was curious about how or why that happened,” said Jamie Brown, of Mooresville, adding that she probably first noticed the color coordination when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2016.
Brown wrote to FAQ City and asked: Who coordinates the lights on Charlotte’s skyscrapers?
'Make The Building Just Sparkle'
One of Charlotte’s most recognizable buildings is the Duke Energy Center.
Bob Bertges said it was his idea to add customizable lights when the building was under construction in the mid- to late 2000s. Bertges retired in 2019 from Wells Fargo, the company that owns the building.
“This whole project was sort of my little baby,” he said.
Bertges said he was inspired by the natural gas company where his father worked when Bertges was growing up in Pittsburgh. The building had a small flame at the top.
“The flame would light red when the weather was going to be bad the next day. And it would light blue when the weather was going to be good the next day,” Bertges said.
He wanted the new Charlotte skyscraper to connect with the community in the same way. So Bertges and the building’s architects and engineers settled on 500 LED light fixtures running the structure’s length. A computer controls what time the lights turn on and off — and each fixture’s color.
“We can make colors run up and down the building and across the building and we can make them sparkle for the Fourth of July,” Bertges said.
The lights always turn off at midnight. They come back on in the early morning before sunrise. They’re also programmed to do something completely random for three minutes at the beginning of each hour that they are lit.
The colors are usually programmed about a month before an event. But when the Carolina Panthers play a night game, someone controls the lights in real time.
“We’ll have somebody actually sit up in the press box with our laptop computer,” Bertges said. “And when the Panthers score a touchdown, then they can make the building just sparkle and light up.”
When the Panthers win a game, the top of the building lights up with a big blue “V” for victory.
Bertges said the color combinations for the Duke Energy Center are seemingly endless. But some uptown buildings are more limited. There are still a few that don’t have LEDs and can’t be controlled with computers. They have to put big colored filters over each light to change the color, a time-consuming process with color options more or less limited to the standard red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
'A Running Spreadsheet'
In 2004, before the Duke Energy Center was built, the Carolina Panthers went to the Super Bowl for the first time.
“We decided that, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all of the lights on the buildings were blue? If we showed our support for the Panthers by turning all of the lights blue?’” said Moira Quinn. Quinn works at Charlotte Center City Partners, which helps coordinate social and cultural projects in uptown.
Quinn said she contacted some building owners and they all agreed. So on February 1, 2004, every building that could lit up blue. After the Super Bowl, Quinn said it became a kind of pattern — if there was a big event coming up, she would send an email.
“So little by little, I became the person who sent out the note to the buildings and said ‘How about if we try to coordinate?’”
Quinn said she can make suggestions but can’t require buildings to change their lights. She keeps “a running spreadsheet” that includes a list of event dates and suggested colors, including a hue-specific hexadecimal code, Pantone color or CMYK color. She emails an updated spreadsheet once every few weeks to the managers of about 30 different buildings.
The colored lights aren’t always coordinated, but when they are, they can have a huge impact, Quinn said. Like in 2019, when a gunman killed two students at UNC Charlotte, Quinn said the whole skyline was green.
“I said, 'We must be Charlotte Strong.' There was not a pushback,” Quinn said. “I have a picture of the entire skyline green. It is gorgeous. In fact, it’s my screen saver. I love that picture. And that is one of the reasons that I do this. Because it builds community. It reminds us that we have heart.”
When local officials issued stay-at-home orders in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the skyline was red, white and blue. Quinn said it was to “remind everybody that we are one.”
Can You Request A Color?
Quinn said people can contact her directly to request a coordinated skyline color but your request may not be accepted. She estimated she received about 10 requests per month.
“I have been asked before for a baby reveal, a gender reveal. Or a birthday. And yeah, no,” she said.
People can also contact the Wells Fargo lighting committee. Quinn said the building managers are most interested in things with significance for the greater Charlotte community.
Jamie Brown, who asked FAQ City about the lights, said she will look at them differently now.