In the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, as most of New York slept, something big and bright lit up the Manhattan skyline for just seconds, a tightly held secret to all but a handful of people. It was a tiny test for the huge public surprise four days later: the flipping of a switch at the Empire State Building to turn on its dancing new LED lights. They burst from the skyscraper was synchronized with R&B star Alicia Keys singing "Empire State of Mind" on nationwide radio. The secret test apparently worked—not a single image of the dry run has surfaced.
The new LED system has "16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes," says one person who helped create the display. The old lights came in only 10 colors. The lights are part of a larger effort to modernize the 81-year-old edifice that is undergoing a more than half a billion-dollar renovation that includes making it "green." The computerized LED system will cut energy consumption by more than half. For those nostalgic for the old lights, at least one will not be discarded in favor of a 21st century novelty: a red beacon "half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle" that serves as a warning signal for aircraft constantly flying over New York City. (Read more Empire State Building stories.)