To change the blinking red light at the very top of the Kansas City Power & Light Building 33 stories above downtown, you have to climb out into the open air on an 85-year-old ladder with no safety cage around it.
Or so I was told. There was no way I was going out there to find out.
“Did you see him the day he was changing the light?” electrician Mike Hagen asked of his employee, Skyler Morehead. “I figured everyone in Kansas City saw him up there.”
Hagen is president of Mike Hagen Electric Co. and has been working on the electrical systems in the refurbished Power & Light Building for a little more than two years now. He has retooled and rejiggered everything, from the old conduits in the subbasement that used to power the city’s traffic lights to the light at the pinnacle, the one required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“When we were putting the FAA light up there, there were names written out there on the outside,” he said. “We weren’t the first ones up there by any stretch of the imagination.”
But we weren’t touring the building for the red lights. We were there for the pink ones.
If you’ve been downtown in October, you probably noticed that most nights the building shines a spectacular pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A new lighting system allows the skyline icon to be lit in nearly any color you can dream up.
“My understanding is there are 288 different colors,” Hagen said. “But it takes some pretty fine tuning by someone sitting at the computer.”
The new lights are part of a $70 million overhaul that turned the limestone skyscraper at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue from offices to the luxury Power & Light Apartments. The apartments go for $1,100 to $3,500 a month.
The sides of the 85-year-old building originally lit up only in white, with the beacon changing occasionally from blue to red to green to amber.
At one time, the beacon’s changing colors reflected the weather forecast, according to Grant Barnes, project manager for NorthPoint Development Co., the building’s owners since 2014. He said there actually was a radio jingle that went along with it, which most Kansas Citians knew back in the day.
“When we did the grand opening there was a lady, she must have been in her 80s — a Kansas City resident her whole life — she sang the song,” Barnes said. “It was pretty neat.”
The old decorative lighting system once was controlled by a board that took up an entire 12-by-20-foot wall at the base of the beacon. The new system is all operated by a lone desktop computer in an anteroom off the Beacon Lounge, the swanky new space open to tenants only.
The old spotlights are rumored to have been the same kind used in the classic Steve McQueen WWII movie “The Great Escape.” Some of them now hang from the ceiling above the Beacon Lounge bar, all shiny and polished to their original copper.
“They were completely green when we took them out,” Hagen said. “Those old lights were terribly inefficient. But it was Kansas City Power & Light. They didn’t care. The whole building was like that.”
That entire lighting system is gone now. The rows and rows of big spotlights have been replaced with banks of modern LED lights that aren’t much bigger than your standard laptop computer.
There are LED arrays on 54 spots around the building, eight on the newly restored observation deck and eight inside the beacon. Eight more reside inside the glass pinnacle at the very top of the building.
“Nothing is supposed to be in the beacon except elevator equipment,” Hagen said, “but they’ve allowed the lights because of the historical significance of the building.”
The beacon, with its towering prismatic art deco windows, is absolutely stunning when lit up at night. (The inside of the beacon actually is pretty cool in the daytime, too; I did make it that far up the building.)
The decision to turn the building pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month came partially from property manager Dawn Cole and partially from Kansas City Councilman Scott Taylor, who contacted NorthPoint CEO Nathaniel Hagedorn.
“It was something I had thought of, but we received an email from (Taylor), who had asked us to do it,” Cole said. “I’ve known people who’ve had breast cancer, so I just thought it would be good to support. But Nathaniel got the initial email. When he says, ‘Hey, can we accommodate this person?’ you say, ‘Yes, we can.’ ”
As part of a City Council campaign, a number of buildings are going pink in October, including Union Station, the Bartle Hall Sky Stations, City Hall, One Kansas City Place, the Downtown Marriott, the Music Hall and Municipal Auditorium.
For Taylor, the issue is personal. His wife, former Councilwoman Cathy Jolly, is a survivor who helped start the annual City Council Breast Cancer Research Foundation fundraiser 10 years ago.
“The Power & Light Building lights are just incredible,” said Taylor, “It really sends a message when you’re driving downtown. It brings awareness to the issue immediately.”
On Halloween, the building will go orange. For a couple of days in November, it will go purple for the March of Dimes. It has been blue for the Royals and red for the Chiefs.
“When Prince died, they wanted us to turn them purple, but at the time we didn’t have the computer set up and we had to do it manually, so we said nah,” Hagen said. “It used to be half a day’s work to go around and change them.”
Now that the whole system is computerized, the lights can go from magenta to chartreuse to aquamarine in about five seconds. And couples who rent out the newly opened Grand Hall downstairs for their weddings can even request the building be lit up in their theme colors. Last Fourth of July, you may have even noticed the building went red, white and blue.
Barnes said, “It looked like a big Rocket Pop.”