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GE brings holidays to light in Schenectady

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GE brings holidays to light in Schenectady

It's not Christmas until the city’s historic General Electric sign blinks red, white and green
GE brings holidays to light in Schenectady
Ryan Mugits holds light bulbs.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

The kissing balls and wreaths can go up on the lampposts downtown. The big Christmas tree with its big ornaments can go up outside Johnny’s on State Street. A big red bow can suddenly appear above the Proctors marquee. Fat flakes of snow can dust the city in a wintry glow.

But it’s not Christmastime in Schenectady until the city’s historic General Electric sign blinks red, white and green from its longtime perch atop Building 37.

For some, it’s just a red and green blur on their morning and evening commutes along Interstate 890 and Erie Boulevard. But for many, the sign’s seasonal transformation is an event unto itself. Newspaper records show families used to make special trips downtown to bask in its red and green glow.

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“Mom and Dad would take us downtown just to look at the sign,” wrote Jay Pomeroy in a 1999 letter to The Daily Gazette.

The late Larry Hart, a longtime Gazette columnist, wrote in his long-running column “Tales of Old Dorp” in 1992 that it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

“How many of us, I wonder, can recall seeing the display during our childhood and associate it with some of our most pleasant memories,” he wrote.

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The sign includes both the General Electric name and its familiar cursive monogram. It was erected in May 1926, in part as an advertising tool by the company to sell electric lights as a product not just for the wealthy but also for the general public. Its installation was timed to coincide with the opening of the new Western Gateway Bridge linking Schenectady to Scotia.

An article published that year in an employee newsletter called the “Schenectady Works News” described it as “a new type of sign visible in daylight hours as well as when illuminated at night.”

The “General Electric” portion of the sign stretches 166 feet across the company’s Power and Water headquarters, with each letter stretching 10 feet high. The monogram is 36 feet wide. For most of the year, its 1,399 bulbs are red, white and blue.

The changing of the colors to something a little more holly and jolly is an annual tradition that dates back at least to 1951, but probably well before that. It takes about 24 man-hours to change each bulb — 278 red, 390 green and 731 white.

Each year, GE workers go up and change the lights in time for the annual Gazette Holiday Parade, which took to downtown streets Nov. 22 this year. The lights come down each January, weather permitting, and go back into storage.

Interestingly, the company that pioneered illumination and continues to do so with its energy-efficient LED bulbs still uses 25-watt incandescent bulbs on its old sign. Despite a massive upgrade to high-efficiency LED lighting in offices, parking lots and elsewhere across GE’s 628-acre campus in recent years, the LED technology isn’t quite yet conducive to an outdoor sign like the one on Building 37, said company spokesman Thomas Schwendler.

“Among other considerations, the LEDs were not warm enough to melt any snow that might accumulate on the sign,” he said in an email.

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LED bulbs produce little or no heat compared to incandescent bulbs, and that’s normally a good thing — there’s less risk of overheating or accidental fires.

Other considerations for GE, though, mirror those the average citizen grapples with in the switch to energy-efficient bulbs: LED bulbs are more expensive to purchase at the outset than incandescent bulbs, though they last a lot longer and save energy over the long run — more than enough to justify that initial purchase.

The last time GE considered LED bulbs for the sign, the initial cost would have been about $70,000, but the annual cost to light them would have only been about $4,000. The incandescent bulbs cost $15,000 a year to light.

“It’s something our facilities team periodically considers,” Schwendler said. “Like many technologies, lighting continues to change, and there may be a solution that someday meets the form, fit and function for the GE sign.”

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