Group wants to relight the KCTV tower for ‘tallest public art piece in the world’

KCTV-5 has no plans to restore lights to its Midtown transmission tower, but many would welcome a return to brightness of the once-iconic element in the city’s night skyline.

Kansas City entrepreneur Jasper Mullarney looks at the 1,042-foot tower at 31st Street and Grand Avenue and sees the potential for “the tallest public art piece in the world.”

He and a group of others want to use the tower for a subtly changing light installation that reflects the natural environment.

It’s just an idea now, but its backers are serious about trying to make it happen.

Mullarney created a 501(c)3 nonprofit and has spent the last few years working on a concept to restore lights to the tower, which went dark years ago. He himself has spent several thousand dollars on the project.

“We miss how it lit up the night sky and are working hard to restore it to former glory,” Mullarney’s group, The Tower KC, says on its Facebook page.

“The Tower KC has received very positive responses from multiple private institutions, foundations and individuals who have indicated an interest and willingness to support the project,” according to the group.

But it is still a functioning broadcast tower and private property.

The key, Mullarney believes, is to craft a plan so meticulously worked out that it will present no risk, cost or other downsides for the TV station, which could benefit from positive public response.

The project includes Kansas City Art Institute faculty member James Woodfill as lead artist and José Faus as lead community engagement artist. Kansas City architecture company El Dorado Inc. is on board to manage the project. Mullarney secured a nod of approval to proceed with planning from former KCTV General Manager Mike Cukyne.

“I’ve been dreaming about that tower for the last 40 years,” said Woodfill, who has done several light-based projects.

Hesse McGraw, a principle and partner in El Dorado, emphasized the project is still in a conceptual stage.

“It’s exciting because there is a nonprofit behind it and we’ve had a few years of conversations and discussions,” McGraw said.

There are engineering and other issues to resolve, as well as the matter of getting funding for what could be a $2 million project. The group applied for a $1 million public art challenge grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies but was not selected.

If successful, the project could result in a jewel to delight locals and draw tourism, proponents say.

“This could be our arch,” said Mullarney, referring to the Gateway Arch that is synonymous with St. Louis. “It’s the tallest structure in the city.”

The Star recently asked the TV station about the tower in response to a reader query submitted to “What’s your KCQ?,” a partnership with the Kansas City Public Library.

The KCTV tower at East 31st Street and Grand Avenue once was lit at night with more than 1,300 incandescent bulbs. A local group wants to use LED lights to create “the tallest public art installation in the world.” The Star File

Kansas City native Todd Hembree wondered if the lights would ever return to the tower.

“It’s something that I’ve seen all my life,” Hembree said. “You’d drive into the city and you’d see it all lit up. It’s very much a part of the KC night skyline that is missing.”

KCTV General Manager Chuck Poduska told the newspaper the station, owned by Meredith Corp., has no plans to relight the tower.

“Logistically, it’s very difficult to keep that tower lit,” Poduska said. “It’s just not feasible anymore.”

He was referring to more than 1,300 incandescent lights that once outlined 900 feet of the four legs of the tower.

Art project supporters propose using more practical and more versatile LED lights. An inspiration is the San Francisco Bay Bridge lights art project that uses thousands of LEDs to create a moving effect.

From Westside 1.jpg
A different view of the proposed light installation on the KCTV-5 tower, which is still functioning as a broadcast tower. James Woodfill

The Tower KC group did a test lighting of 120 LEDs at the top of the tower in December 2015 and learned some valuable lessons.

The concept is to capture the colors of the sky every day — from sunrise to sunset, bright blue or overcast — and reproduce them on the tower at night.

The colors would be played back by the LEDs in a minutes-long repeating loop, creating a subtle light show against the night sky.

Subtlety is important.

“Light art has a tendency to provide spectacle,” Woodfill said. “We looked for something that had a different kind of dignity to it.... The concept is one of contemplation and simply being with the environment.”

Woodfill has titled the proposed art project “Seeing the Night Bluely.”

Mullarney said the idea is simple enough that most people, he believes, would love it.

“It restores and pays tribute to the lights we all miss, while also holding its own as a unique and beautiful piece of public art,” he said. “It’ll also never repeat. The patterns will be unique to each passing day.”

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