Tag Archives: Douglas Leigh

A giant Coke bottle atop the Empire State Building? Almost.

Did you see the spectacular debut of the Empire State Building‘s new LED lights last night, choreographed to the music of Alicia Keys, being simultaneously broadcast on four New York radio stations?


 The allure of the Empire State Building as a glamorous light spectacle has been around almost since the mast — originally designed, but never used, as a mooring mast for zeppelins — was raised in 1931.

Nearby Times Square was bathed in the light of neon advertisement, and its master of manipulation was lighting designer Douglas Leigh.  The iconic beacon would have been irresistible to Leigh, and in 1941, he proposed for the top of the Empire State something that would have been easily his most ambitious, most striking lighting display to date — an illuminated bottle of Coca-Cola.

According to author John Tauranac, the famous curvaceous bottle would have sat along the spire, changing color based upon the weather. It was one of several potential Empire State Building/Coke tie-ins planned, including a Coke-sponsored performance by the orchestra of Andre Kostelanetz performed at the top, broadcast nationwide on the radio. Coke products would have featured “a small guide to decipher the colors.

The Empire State Building could have used this publicity at this time, as owners were scrambling to fill vacancies within the building. With Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and dozens of other towers now constructed, midtown Manhattan was experiencing a glut of office space.  A Coke sponsorship would have given the Empire State Building free publicity, not to mention sizable rental fees.

Below: Leigh’s famous smoking Camel ad in midtown Manhattan. The Empire State Building can be seen up in the corner.

But Leigh’s timing was terrible; even as the plan was being drafted, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered World War II.  During the war, there would be no lights at all atop the building or in its upper floors.

A few years later, in July 1945, a B-25 bomber would crash into the Empire State Building, killing the pilot and several within the building. More amazing facts about that tragic accident here.

Leigh never gave up his dream of transforming the Empire State Building. After the war, Leigh told Life Magazine he wanted to put a gigantic, lighted cigarette on the building. [source]  Many decades later, Leigh would finally get his chance — albeit without product placement — designing a new, colorful lighting system  in time for the country’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

Fifth Avenue’s Unidentified Flying Ornament

One of Manhattan’s newest holiday traditions concerns that rather exotic looking snowflake hanging with a seeming precariousness 80 feet above the intersection of 57th and 5th Avenue, a crystalline piece of festivity greeting big spenders on their way into Tiffany’s, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton.

This delicate knickknack is actually a bit of a linebacker. At 3,300 lbs (a small elephant) and 23 feet in diameter, its twelve stainless-steel snowflake branches sparkle with 12,000 Baccarat crystals and over 400 small lighting effects to create a truly otherworldly — some would say even alien — presence on Manhattan’s richest shopping avenue. I’m sorry, that’s HUGE.

Here’s what it looks like indoors and hung in a dramatic fashion:

What I didn’t realize is that Fifth Avenue has had a gigantic snowflake hovering above it during the holidays as far back as 1984. (See picture below.) Back then it was a slightly smaller model of steel and tinsel and pockmarked with hundreds of 11 watt light bulbs. It was designed by Douglas Leigh, a man midtown Manhattan could never have done without.

Leigh, an old-school showman, was a virtuoso at outdoor lighting display, changing Times Square forever with such living advertisements as the smoking Camel cigarette ad, a Pepsi-Cola waterfall, and a bubbling Super Suds detergent ad spraying suds into the air. He’s responsible for the elaborate Wrigley’s Gum advertisement at Bond’s Clothing store, later Bond’s International Casino. In 1976 he designed mechanisms to light up the Empire State Building each night, for the first time in full color, and topped other buildings like the Waldorf-Astoria and the Citicorp buildings. Leigh died at age 92 in 1999.

By 2002, his sad snowflake had fallen behind the times. So a new street ornament was prepared, this time called the ‘UNIcef Snowflake’ to benefit the United Nations Children’s Fund. The current creation is designed by renown lighting artist Ingo Maurer. Its very lighting every season brings out celebrities, a miniature version of the Christmas lighting just down the street. This past year’s celebration brought out Clay Aiken to switch on the glowing street flake.

And to get the image of Clay Aiken out of your mind, here’s one of Leigh’s best known creations: