Who’s Behind the Colorful Lights at San Francisco City Hall?

8 min
San Francisco City Hall is lit up green for St. Patrick's Day. (Blair Wells/KQED)

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ay Curious listener Katie Emigh loves walking by San Francisco's City Hall after sunset. The building's ominous granite exterior is lit up dramatically every night. Most nights the lights are white. But there are special days when City Hall takes on a whole new look.

For Pride Week, it glowed in all the colors of the rainbow. After Prince died, it was bathed in purple. On St. Paddy’s Day, City Hall turned a radiant shamrock green.

“It's such a symbol of San Francisco, and has become more of a symbol as time’s gone on,” Katie says as she stands before City Hall.

With her favorite San Francisco building in mind, Katie had a question for Bay Curious:

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“I was always just curious who decides what the lights are going to be at City Hall -- and who does them?”

Katie Emigh met up with her best friend Kim Ish for St. Patricks Day -- but first a stop at her favorite landmark.
Katie Emigh met up with her best friend, Kim Ish, for St. Patrick's Day -- but first a stop at her favorite landmark. (Blair Wells/KQED)

City Hall History

Like every great structure in every great city, San Francisco City Hall has a story to tell.

Most city halls are landmarks, it’s true. But our City Hall is even more iconic than your average civic building -- one with a history that makes its special luminous hues even more meaningful.

Built in 1915, in the neoclassical style, it rises more than the length of a football field into the San Francisco sky. At 307 feet, it’s taller than the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and features 240 windows.

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors walk through its ornate bronze doors -- like Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio did in 1954. The American icons were married here.

For generations of San Franciscans, City Hall has long been a symbol of political and social change.

It was here that former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unleashed a watershed legal and political tempest when he issued marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004, putting the nation on notice when he said, “As California goes, so goes the nation.”

City Hall has also seen its tragic moments. In 1978, then-Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein made a chilling announcement on the front steps that both Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office, had been shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White.

And City Hall has had its turn in the Hollywood spotlight, too, including roles in classics like 1971’s “Dirty Harry,” the blockbuster “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the remake of the sci-fi cult standard, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

By day, City Hall is a monument to this place we call home. And at night, the lights continue to reflect the city’s unique identity.

So, who makes the lighting decisions?

It’s actually a trio of City Hall officials: City Administrator Naomi Kelly; the mayor’s director of special events, Martha Cohen; and the city’s chief of protocol, Charlotte Shultz. Together, they decide which civic events get lit up -- always keying into what Kelly calls “a local nexus.”

They go with red, white and blue for Election Day and rainbow colors for Pride Week. But sometimes the colors that shine are a little less obvious. Blue on an ordinary February evening? Red tones amid a windy September night?

Turns out City Hall can be rented for private events, and paying clients get to decide City Hall's lighting scheme.

Our Bay Curious question-asker, Katie, also noticed something else.

“It used to happen less, and now it seems to happen more frequently,” she says.

Katie’s right. City Hall goes all-aglow more often now. The older lighting system made changing colors a big challenge.

“We would have to send a team of electricians and our station engineers out on the second floor of this building and manually change each of the 220 exterior lights with these gel caps," says Kelly. "That process could take days. And they were incandescent lights, so they burned a lot of energy.”

Each time there was a lighting change it cost about $5,000 to create a new color scheme, so it didn’t happen very often.

But two years ago, City Hall celebrated a milestone -- its 100th birthday.

“All the exterior lights were replaced with LED bulbs,” says Kelly.

Changing the colors of the lights got a lot easier. Instead of hiring a full work crew to make the alterations by hand, now one man makes it shine -- Norm Goldwyn, IT Director of the City and County of San Francisco.

Before the new LED lights were installed, it took a crew hours or days to swap out colored gels on the old lights.
Before the new LED lights were installed, it took a crew hours or days to swap out colored gels on the old lights. (Blair Wells/KQED)

Goldwyn works his magic in a dark, cramped room far below the rattle and hubbub of the San Francisco streets above. Some might call him an artist. Instead of a brush he uses a mouse. His canvas is a piece of granite. And his paint palette – it’s a computer screen.

In his windowless lab downstairs, Goldwyn gets to do what he calls “probably one of the funnest parts of my job.”

The room is cluttered. Old boxes, a table, some steel machinery, a piece of granite and one of the new LED light fixtures sit amid the mess. He quickly goes to work and explains his process.

For Norm Goldwyn, getting the hue to shine on the granite just right is an art.
For Norm Goldwyn, getting the hue to shine on the granite just right is an art. (Blair Wells/KQED)

“I grab a computer and hook it up to a light fixture, and then I can adjust the sliders until I can find the exact color combination that makes sense for that particular special occasion,” he says.

But getting the colors right can be tricky, since they look different on a laptop than they do shining on the City Hall facade. For this, he has a real-world solution -- that slab of granite on the basement floor.

“This is an example of the granite we use on the outside of City Hall,” he says, positioning the stone just right. “So when we finally take a color idea, we can shine it on the sample material here and see what color, with our own eyes, it's really going to look like.”

And with a quick touch on a laptop keyboard, the whole space is suddenly lit up green. A shamrock green to be precise. Other nights, the dark basement radiates in Women’s March pink or Warriors blue and gold.

A dark room with a sample piece of granite helps Goldwyn find the right hue from his palette of 16 million.
A dark room with a sample piece of granite helps Goldwyn find the right hue from his palette of 16 million. (Blair Wells/KQED)

But getting the colors just right isn't as easy as you might think.

“It took us a lot of tries to get Giants orange looking orange, as opposed to red or yellow,” admits Goldwyn. “And most people don't actually know what they want. They just want blue. But they don't think about Sky Blue, Carolina Blue, Deep Indigo. They just say, 'I want blue.' ”

Goldwyn can adjust for 16 million hues. The colors can also be set to change and move. And with the new technology also comes ease of use. The lights are programmed to go off and on with a touch of the hand and simple flip of a switch.

Katie Emigh is eager for one particular San Francisco sports team to be honored by the City Hall light scheme.
Katie Emigh is eager for one particular San Francisco sports team to be honored by the City Hall light scheme. (Blair Wells/KQED)

Outside, Katie admires the work of the man in the basement down below.

“Norm really did it tonight. He really killed it with the green,” she says. “It’s inspiring, because it's less bureaucratic than I thought it would be, less people involved than I thought it would be. That this small group of people are able to represent these moments for the city, that really show this beautiful civic monument, is absolutely wonderful.”

As she heads off into the San Francisco night, she turns to say one last thing.

“Do you want to know the next great moment I’m looking forward to City Hall shining bright for? Giants orange, baby!”

It’s a good thing Norm Goldwyn already has the right shade of orange all figured out. Not too red. Not too yellow.

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