Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Modest Icon Returns to D.C., The Washington Globe Streetlight

Iconic street light design has long been part of A-list cities like New York, Boston and Paris. Paris, mais bien sur, naturally, is nicknamed, "The City of Light." And in the United States, New York indeed, might just be the streetlight capital, where there are more than 34 models, most with intricate ironwork, with names like "The Corvington" and the delightfully-named 24A-W "Bishop's Crook." The street light design, not surprisingly, has added to Gotham's mystique and sense of place.

Not surprisingly, there are even Web sites devoted to preserving New York's streetlight heritage.
The Big Apple actually held a design contest in 2004 to standardize and unify the more than 300,000 streetlights in the city, mainly with an aim to ending the tyranny of the banal 1960's era "form-follows-function" cobra head light.

The cobra head light, otherwise known as a Westinghouse OV25 Silverliner, first designed in 1957, is still a staple in many cities, especially Washington D.C. For many years, streetlight design in a "no-frills" government town like Washington meant cobra heads rearing up everywhere.

Oddly enough, they fit well amid the acres of Brutalist concrete of the 1960s and 1970s as the federal government needed to expand its bureaucracy quickly. And as confidence in city management waned in the Marion Barry years, more concern was understandably paid to getting burnt-out streetlights replaced quickly rather than what they looked like.

That's not to say Washington didn't have its own iconic design. The Washington Globe and its bigger brother, the "Twin-20" was, and still is a recognizable staple along Constitution Avenue, New York Avenue and other historic routes. "The Washington Globe is the most pleasing design, architecturally," the city's Fine Arts Commission declared in 1980.

But decades of neglect and disrepair took its toll on a Washington icon. Part of which was due to cost of the globes. A glass globe was the hardiest design, and didn't yellow when exposed to sunlight, but cost more than $300 each and were a danger to cars and pedestrians alike if the heavy, inch-thick glass shattered. The District sent its inventory of glass globes to a dumpster more than 20 years ago.

Replacements for the glass were far from perfect. Polycarbonate globes were tougher, could be bought for less, but yellowed when exposed to sunlight and the lights lost their luminosity. They only last about 5-10 years to boot. Acrylic globes didn't yellow, lasted longer, about 10-15 years, but they weren't cheap either, about $125 a globe.

Indifferent administrations, and the District's subordinate relationship to the federal government also contributed to the lack of appreciation of such uniqueness. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the Carter administration urged electricity savings. At the White House's prompting, many federal agencies in town disconnected street lighting and eschewed illuminating government buildings, save the Capitol, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and the Washington Monument.

The issue of streetlights in the District played a role in one of the more tragic, and galling incidents in the city. According to the DC Inspector General's report on the death of former New York Times editor David Rosenbaum in January 2006, inadequate street lighting along Granmercy Street was a contributing factor in both his attack and the inability of responding police, firefighters and EMTs in determining the seriousness of Rosenbaum's condition, who was presumed to be drunk, rather than a victim of a robbery with a serious head injury which proved fatal.

While treating Rosenbaum, firefighters needed to turn on side floodlights of their engine to illuminate the scene, the inspector general's report said. "The area was dark, even with the fire (engine)'s lights on," the report said.

Even before Rosenbaum's death, attention had begun to focus on the dismal state of DC's 62,000-plus streetlights and their design. In 1998, the city adopted streetscape and sidewalk standards for downtown DC. Streetscape standards required that builders of commercial properties, among other things, incorporate Washington Globe streetlight design.

And in 2005, the city followed New York's lead and initiated its own streetlight design committee which identified so-called "Special Streets" and "Historic Streets" to upgrade streetlight design as funds permitted. "The historic significance of the City must be reflected through all aesthetic elements including the appearance of streetlights," the committee declared in March 2005 in its final report.
Still, city administrators will freely admit that not every "Special" or "Historic" street will get the upgraded lighting, given other more pressing budget priorities amid an economic downturn. Teardrop lights cost as much as $600, compared to $200 for a cobra head light. But DC recently used Recovery Act funding to replace outdated streetlights along the Dalecarlia Parkway in Northwest. The Dalecarlia Parkway is one of 120 "Special Street" corridors the city has identified for upgraded lighting, including Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, MacArthur Boulevard, and the roads making up DC's borders with Montgomery County and Prince Georges County.

But where the city is lacking funds, some of the Business Improvement Districts are stepping up. The Downtown DC BID has also used its funds to pay for new pendant lights, such as the one above seen at 12th and F NW downtown, as well as Washington Globe lights around Gallery Place. In addition, the National Park Service included new "Twin 20" lighting as part of their $10 million remake of Constitution Avenue to be completed in March.

Former Mayor Adrian Fenty also made it a priority for a portion of DC's new streetlights to be green, as well as iconic. The District uses 60.7 million kWh annually and has a lighting bill of about $3.6 million, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The new Metropolitan Branch Trail along the CSX-right-of-way includes nineteen solar-powered LED streetlights. The District is also using $1 million in Recovery Act money for new LED lights in alleys.

Washington D.C. redevelopment news.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Boston- A-list? Pwah

Sivad said...

Just as long as the 60's sodium pressure bulbs don't continue as well. The commercial world has gone to metal halide. Why is the orange glow of depression still in use?

Matt said...

Are the new lights Dark Sky compliant?

Anonymous said...

Informative article, thank you!

The bases of many of the 1960s-era cobra head poles are rotting and in danger of imminent failure, which could be catastrophic. As the city transitions to these "Victoriana" looking lights, there are numerous intersections across the city with old and new designs, and it looks cluttered and unsightly.

As an obsessed modernist, the new lights aren't necessarily my favorite, but I have to admit they are growing on me!

Tom in (mid-century) Michigan Park

Anonymous said...

I do like the Washington globe, but I think in some instances they are way too overpowered. Also, what Matt said@10:13. These lights tend to cast light everywhere, and not down. No sense in washing the entire side of a building, just light the sidewalks and streets below. Properly designed streetlights would also give some relief to folks who live adjacent to them. If you've got one outside your window, all the best window treatments in the world still can't keep all the light out.

Anonymous said...

No more fake plastic "gaslights". There are very exciting "dark sky" street lighting innovations:

Anonymous said...

If they are paying attention, the lights should be required to have globes that have the tops coated internally with reflective material so the light is cast downward. Though this contributes to "dark skies" it can still end up being annoyingly bright around them.

Shame to see millions of $$ going to something as unimportant as having consistency between streetlights, and not schools or other programs that might create jobs.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. I will pay more attention to streelights now.

Anonymous said...

yea as the others mentioned, the lights do not properly cast the light downward but instead waste energy and illuminate out. Just look at what residents did to the lamps on the north side of the 1400 block of P ST NW - the north sides of the globes are spray painted black!

Vanished on Jan 12, 2012, 2:03:00 PM said...

Great news! I was just about to write about DC's unimpressive downtown street lights.

Anonymous said...

Street and alley lighting, as a matter of public safety, is at the heart of making neighborhoods safer and bringing families into developing areas. This small improvement leads to bigger and better outcomes, such as improved schools because there is a larger demand by an increasing population. Why not accomplish this with a standard design which is austhetically pleasing and meets electrical saving to the city. I hope the city in its capital planning decision uses this "public safety" criteria as part of the decision making rather than a "looks nice" criteria.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it mandatory with DC Sustainable energy efforts that the lights be efficient and light the ground, not the sky?

Anonymous said...

Great opportunities exist to modernize the streetlight operations in DC through the utilization of existing technology, while re-establishing the historic appearance of streetlights in very cost effective energy efficient ways.

LED replacement is an extremely cost effective measure that enables more ability to direct the light, longer lifecycles w/minimal maintenace, lower energy consumption, and a cleaner light. The ROI for DC would be 2 to 3 years max depending on the type of bulb/fixture that is being replaced.

The other major possibility is using dimming technology to control the wattages being consumed based upon ambient light, lunar cycles, seasonal changes, as well as providing the ability to have maximum lighting in emergency situations. Right now I compare our streetlights to a three-way lamp that is always kept at the highest setting.

Erin said...

Yes, these streetlights are prettier than the current ones, thanks to the people getting rid of cobra lights. But yes, caps on lights not only prevent light pollution and give us back views of the stars, but they also don't unnecessarily intrude into windows, and reflect light back down onto the street, making them more efficient. DC is behind the times not getting such lights, many communities around the country have already done so.

tom veil said...

I've lived in Columbia Heights and Chinatown, and I'm also a fan of Dark Sky lights. One simple thing that makes a huge difference is whether the light is pointing up or down. Those upward-pointing lamps may look pretty in the daytime, but they end up lighting the buildings and the sky, not the streets and sidewalks. I've found that the new downward-pointing globes are a big step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

The Washington Globe is a lovely ornamental light fixture and fluted column support that can enhance the public realm and aid in the urban design of streets and places, but it is a poor source of lighting for sidewalks. And it and any other lighting selected need to be maintained or lighting levels will decline -- witness Pennsylvania Avenue. It was redesigned and reconstructed with a three-tier lighting system in the 1970s to 1990s. The Washington Globe lines the curb to enhance that important vista down the Avenue. At intersections where one has to see pedestrians crossing streets it used contemporary high-mast, shielded light fixtures at each corner, and to light the pedestrian way on much widened sidewalks it had a low art-moderne designed downlight or pedestrian light fixture. None of these have been properly maintained by the National Park Service since the responsibility for doing so was transferred to them on April 1, 1996. What a shame that all that time and expense is wasted and the National Park Service eventually will receive funds to replace all the fixture just as they received funds to replace the Mellon fountains in Farragut Square 20 or so years after they installed them because they didn't maintain them. The irony is that for an agency that professes to follow "green" practices, it adopts maintenance practices that have the completely opposite impact. They need to learn how good repair reduces the need for replacement.

Bob Parks on Apr 6, 2013, 9:51:00 AM said...

The fascination with using obsolete technology that wastes energy, causes glare and light trespass, and contributes to skyglow is irresponsible and unsustainable. In addition, these fixtures reduce rather than enhance visibility, which is what lighting is supposed to accomplish.

The antique lighting fixtures that these emulate used gas flames and produced 2-5% of the light output that these monstrosities do. By caring more about what these look like during the day, than how they perform at night, cities do a great disservice to lighting design and the communities they install these into. These fixtures send 30-50% of their light into the sky and resident's bedroom windows. Do we really have so much money that we can throw away 30-50% of our energy?

We also had dirt roads when these period fixtures were being used, but somehow we evolved to use paved roads. There are plenty of historical looking fully shielded lighting fixtures available, using acorn and globe fixtures should be against the law.

The future of street lighting is the use of fully shielded LED fixtures that have adaptive controls to allow them to be dimmed and/or turned off when there are no cars or pedestrians.

Wasting light is a bad habit that we can't afford.

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