A Gem in Steel and Lights
Niagara Mohawk Building Lights Up Syracuse

January 26, 2003

David Ramsey, Staff writer

Russ King, a toddler, walked into the East Fayette Street office where his father, Harry, and grandfather, Melvin, spent their days dreaming up designs for buildings. This visit was special. This visit still lingers in his mind 70 years later. It was 1932, and the Kings had created a headquarters for the Syracuse Lighting Co., a forerunner of Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. The Kings had sought to deliver a shiny, bold, modern structure to advertise the wonders of electric light.

They had crafted a model that rested in the middle of the office. As Russ stared at the model, he was instantly smitten.

He was not alone in his affection.

King was there at the building's birth. Today, 71 years after the NiMo Building first thrilled Central New Yorkers and after his own long career in architecture, Russ enjoys standing in front of his father's and grandfather's creation.

"It was not the kind of building that you see every day," he says. "It's great to see the building come back to its original form. It's a real ornament."

After a 1999 renovation, the NiMo Building again stands as a glittering reminder of the Art Deco age in American architecture. In the 1930s, lights brightened the structure in white light, serving as a proclamation of the wonders of electricity.

Syracuse nights grew a bit less shiny in the 1940s, when worries of World War II bombing raids caused the night lights to be shut off. For decades, the NiMo Building gradually lost its glimmer.

Howard Brandston led the effort to bring light back to the Syracuse night. He also had worked with the relighting of the Statue of Liberty and the lighting scheme of Malaysia's Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world.

Brandston considered the intent of the original designers and added modern technology, complete with 894 fluorescent lamps, 659 incandescent lamps, 110 metal halide lamps and 2,010 feet of blue, green, red and white neon lighting.

Dietrich Neumann works as an architecture professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He is an internationally recognized authority on exterior lighting and specializes in buildings created during the Art Deco era.

"The NiMo Building," Neumann says from his office at Brown, "is a great example of what is called the architecture of the night."

As lighting became available to more consumers, electric companies rushed to find ways to display the wonders of their product. Structures such as the NiMo Building, Neumann says, became "permanent demonstrations."

What strikes Neumann is the contradiction of the building. The NiMo Building opened in 1932 during the height of the Great Depression, a time of hunger and desperation and pessimism.

Yet here was this bright, modern creation that glowed even on the darkest of nights.

"The building served as a distraction from the squalor and poverty you would see during the daytime. It provided a kind of fairy-tale illumination suggesting some kind of unreal other reality," Neumann says.

When the building opened, it clashed with most of downtown. This building, sporting gleaming stainless steel from Crucible Steel, served as a siren call for the future.

Today, the structure retains its ability to surprise. At night, the NiMo Building shines like a big birthday cake, its lights reaching across the western end of downtown, its glow visible to those enjoying a dinner or drinks in Armory Square.

Jonathan Massey works as assistant professor of architecture at Syracuse University. He was surprised and thrilled when he first encountered the NiMo Building.

"I really was struck by its exuberance," Massey says. "It has all the articulation and the kind of grandeur of a much larger building."

"It acts like it's the biggest building in town."

2002 The Post-Standard.