Peculiar Pittsburgh

Gulf Tower 101: Everything you need to know about its weather beacon and festive light displays

Get your weather from dusk to dawn — but not when its celebrating or honoring 20 holidays and social causes.

The Gulf Tower on Light Up Night.

The Gulf Tower on Light Up Night.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Updated 12:13 p.m Nov. 29

The Gulf Tower is arguably the most interesting part of the nighttime Pittsburgh skyline.

On holidays and after some Pirates and Penguins games, it lights up in celebration. But on a regular Monday (or any other day), it’s *The KDKA-TV Weather Beacon.*

So instead of looking to your phone for a weather app, look up … from dusk to dawn.

First, a quick history lesson

The Gulf Tower weather beacon as we know it started in 2012 and was designed by Cindy Limauro and Christopher Popowich, owners and designers at C&C LightingBut it wasn’t a new idea. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the tower had a two-color weather beacon.

The original weather beacon required the building’s security guard to listen to the weather and change its blue and red lights, Limauro told The InclineBut paying for the lights became too expensive during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and it was turned off.

When it was brought back in 2012, the beacon was updated with LED energy-efficient lights and data from a real-time weather sensor, Limauro said. Now, it’s all run by a computer system that’s connected to a live weather center. No manual changes needed.

And with better data came more weather details (temperature, precipitation, humidity and wind speed) — and of course, more colors.

A festive tower of lights

At least 20 times a year, the Gulf Tower stops being a weather resource to celebrate a holiday or to bring awareness to a cause.

Plus, there are the times it changes for the Pirates and the Penguins.

In some cases, it’s a simple color changes. Last month, the beacon was pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and then orange and black for Halloween.

The Gulf Tower lit in orange, Downtown.

The Gulf Tower lit for Halloween.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Other holidays like Fourth of July are more complicated. Limauro said that project was fun to design because they timed the lights to look like fireworks. Limauro added that she likes the way the lights then highlight the architecture of the building.

But the most challenging to create? The Hanukkah display, Limauro said, for a few reasons.

First, the display itself. Limauro said she and Popowich were asked to create a light display that looked like a menorah and mimicked the lighting of each candle. It was a challenge to create vertical lines of light, and the top needed to flicker like a candle, she said. When all the candles are lit, the whole thing goes blue with top flickering like one candle.

Second, Limaruo said, is the timing. Most holidays can be programmed in — using an astronomical clock — to recur. Christmas is always Dec. 25, and the Fourth of July is always, well, July 4. It’s possible to program in holidays that aren’t the same date, but hold the same calendar spot, Limaruo said, like Thanksgiving, which is always the fourth Thursday of November.

But Hanukkah moves. Plus, if it overlaps with Pearl Harbor Day or Christmas, alternating lights need to be scheduled, she said. Hanukkah’s lights are programmed in five years at a time.

Spur of the moment displays

Most displays are scheduled, but Limaruo said there are ways to make last minute changes.

Anything can be programmed in, like a Carnegie Museum of Art display last year. Plus, there is control system access in the press boxes at PNC Park and PPG Paints Arena. Someone there can press the button to change the lights for a homerun, a goal or a win, Limaruo said.

But why not for the Steelers?

Limaruo said the team hasn’t asked for access from Heinz Field. Probably because the tower isn’t visible from the field, she said.

Reading the weather beacon

Temperature: 42nd, 43rd, 44th floors (top three tiers)

  • Blue means that it’s cold (aka 49 degrees and below). The darker the blue, the colder it is.
  • Amber? Getting warmer. 50 to 65 degrees, to be exact.
  • If it’s orange, go frolic outside, because it’s a perfect 66 to 79 degrees.
  • Red means it’s 80 degrees or more.

Precipitation: 41st floor

  • The dividing line is 0.25 inches. 
  • More than that? Red/purple.
  • Less than that? Blue/purple.

Humidity: 40th floor

  • The darker the green, the higher the percentage.
  • Dark green is 50 percent or more.
  • Light green is less than 50 percent.

Wind speed: 39th floor

  • Magenta is more than 10 mph.
  • Pink is less than that.

So just remember darker shades mean more. (Except for precipitation, you just have to memorize that one.)

Limauro and Popowich selected the colors “so that no matter how the colors changed based on weather conditions the top of the Gulf Tower would always look like a beautiful sculpture of light,” she told The Incline.

So when is it NOT a weather beacon?

During these holidays and in honor of these causes:

  • New Year’s Day
  • Martin Luther King Day
  • Valentine’s Day
  • President’s Day
  • St. Patrick’s Day
  • Earth Day (no lights)
  • Memorial Day
  • Flag Day
  • Labor Day
  • September 11th
  • Columbus Day
  • Breast Cancer Awareness Month
  • Halloween
  • Veteran’s Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Pearl Harbor Day
  • Hanukkah
  • Christmas Eve
  • Christmas Day
  • New Year’s Eve