For the past 84 years, the lights of General Electric’s large, rooftop emblem have served as a beacon to greet visitors to Schenectady and a familiar icon to people who live here.
It is an unofficial historic landmark of the city, a remnant of when Schenectady was known as “The City that Lights and Hauls the World,” with GE being the former and Alco the latter.
“It’s an icon for the area,” said Chris Hunter, Schenectady Museum director of archives. “The sign can be seen over a mile away, and it’s a symbol of how important General Electric has been to our community.”
The sign was built on top of the building in May of 1926, just several months after the engineering facility’s building opened. It was part of a series of signs built on other GE facilities at the time, but is the only one to have been maintained.
An article published May 21, 1926, in the “Schenectady Works News” called it “a new type of sign visible in daylight hours as well as when illuminated at night.” Installed by the Federal Electric Co. of Chicago, it was the largest electric sign in the country at that time, according to the article.
Hunter said the sign has changed very little since its construction.
Made up of 1,399 lights, each letter is 10 feet tall and the monogram is 36 feet in diameter. The sign itself stretches 168 feet across what is now headquarters for the company’s power and water business.
Each year, General Electric changes the sign’s lights to red, green and white in conjunction with the Gazette’s Schenectady Holiday Parade, according to spokeswoman Chris Horne. The first time the sign is lighted with the holiday colors is when the parade is scheduled.
One of the earliest references to the holiday tradition is found in a General Electric newsletter from Dec. 14, 1951, provided by the Schenectady Museum. “Signs of the Christmas season come each year when the big General Electric sign on top of building 37 is lighted with yellow, green, and red bulbs,” it reads.
“It obviously seems as though the color change was a long-standing tradition well before ’51,” Hunter said.
During World War II, the sign was left unlighted to save energy and prevent enemy planes from spotting the building from the air. In the late ’70s the sign remained off once again due to the energy crisis. However, in July of 1976 the lights were turned on and changed to the colors red, white and blue to celebrate the bicentennial. The colors returned in 2001 in honor of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Horne said there are currently no official colors for the sign and the topic is being discussed. Outside of the holiday season, sometimes the lights remain white, while other times the bulbs are changed to the colors of the flag.
Changing all of the structure’s bulbs takes about 24 man-hours. Some minor repairs, like changing sockets and replacing bolts, were recently made to the sign and its structure, according to Horne.
The company is now researching the cost to replace all of the sign’s bulbs with LED lights in the near future. The hope is to save time, money and energy.
The cost to light the sign’s hundreds of 25-watt bulbs is $15,000 annually.
Either way, there are no plans to do away with the notable marker.
“We are very proud of our heritage within the community,” Horne said. “We are also proud to be a part of the long legacy of Schenectady’s holiday traditions. [The sign lighting] is just one of many ways we connect with the city’s residents.”