Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Giving the Capitol That Ghoulish Glow

Isn't it interesting that the Phila-delphia firm that got a fat little contract to create an envi-ronmentally friendly lighting scheme for the dome of the U.S. Capitol (designed by Philly's own Thomas U. Walter in the late 1850s) is the same one that gave City Hall its ghoulish nighttime appearance? The Washington Post reports, and the Inquirer reprints, a story suggesting that Rep. Bob Brady did a favor for The Lighting Practice and helped them get a $671,900 contract to design a more energy-efficient light system for the Capitol's high-visibility dome. That's a lot of money to save a little energy.
To be fair, City Hall's lighting doesn't come across as macabre and Halloweenish because too much money was spent on the treatment. As I wrote in this 2005 column, it looks like something out of the Addams Family, in part, because the lighting designers didn't have a proper budget to light individual features. So, they chose to bombard the "silent, weird, beautiful**" Second Empire pile with beams from giant fixtures screwed onto buildings around Center Square. The result is both patchy and overly-dramatic. Instead of admiring the glow, you're distracted by the particle beams that the big fixtures shoot out into the sky. It's gotten a little better since 2005, either because some of the bulbs have burned out, or because the beams have been redirected. But on a misty night, you still feel like you're walking into a fight scene from Revenge of the Sith.
That said, the Washington Post story feels a might circumstantial It suggests that the bill for greening the dome is out of line, but offers no meaningful comparisons. It's true the Lighting Practice didn't offer the lowest bid, but with professional services lowest isn't always the best choice. However, Brady's connection does make you wonder (especially since his stand on waterless urinals didn't suggest a keen interest in things green). But then there is the Thomas Walter connection. He had a hand in designing City Hall.
**The quote is Walt Whitman's famous description of City Hall.