For years, it has been the nation's tallest pentagon.
Starting New Year's Eve, the World Trade Center in Baltimore will also become a 28-story light show, casting rays of bluish-white xenon in all directions.
"Under the right weather conditions," promises lighting designer Ray Grenald, "it will be visible for seven to 10 miles."
Maryland's Board of Public Works approved a request this week to spend $341,000 in public funds to turn the state-owned building into a lighthouse for the Inner Harbor by installing exterior spotlights that will shine every evening, starting in January.
The lights are the first phase of a larger effort by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Maryland Port Administration, which owns and operates the tower, to make it stand out as the hub of international trade activity at the port of Baltimore.
They are also part of a campaign by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to "Brighten Baltimore" by illuminating the tops and sides of key buildings after dark to make the downtown area appear more secureand inviting for visitors and residents.
The BGE effort is modeled after successful efforts in other cities, such as Dallas and Miami, to attract visitors by lighting up their skylines at night.
"Baltimore has a spectacular skyline, but at night, there's no there there. Baltimore simply disappears," said Mr. Grenald, whose Philadelphia-based firm is serving as a lighting consultant to BGE as well as the port administration. "This will put a there there."
The top of the World Trade Center "just fades out" at night because it is not illuminated, agrees Linda Jordan, executive assistant to MPA head Michael P. Angelos.
"The new lighting will boldly identify the center as a beacon of international trade with a lighthouse concept in which two beams of reflected light shoot from each of the five corners of the roof," she said. "It's going to be gorgeous. It will be substantially different from anything else in the harbor."
Ms. Jordan said the lighting plan was developed in response to a challenge from Mr. Schaefer to upgrade the building, at 401 E. Pratt St., so it will remain competitive with newer structures around the Inner Harbor.
The governor, she said, wanted the changes to underscore the building's significance as a World Trade Center. Additional phases of the renovation will affect the lobby, the plaza and other parts of the building, and a new sign will be installed at the entrance that reads "World Trade Center Baltimore."
"There really have been no changes to the building since it opened in 1977," she said. "We were challenged to update the exterior of the building and add some elements that would internationalize the lobby and improve the plaza. We were challenged to try to come up with ways to make the building look new again, especially given all the recent construction nearby."
Done with mirrors
Mr. Grenald suggested shining thin, intense beams of xenon light up the notches in the five corners of the pentagonal World Trade Center and placing large elliptical mirrors atop each column.
When each shaft of light hits its corresponding mirror, it will break into two beams shining in different directions out over the city. When the air is especially humid or hazy, the beams of light will be most visible. Color wheels could also be installed to vary the colors of light that radiates from the building -- making possible a red, white and blue scheme on the Fourth of July, for example.
2 buildings cited
Mr. Grenald, who also recommended the lighting plan for the Washington Monument on Charles Street, said the World Trade Center is one of two "pivotal" buildings on Baltimore's skyline that he believes need to be better lighted, along with the Bromo-Seltzer Tower at Eutaw and Lombard streets.
Mr. Grenald said his firm wanted to light the World Trade Center in a way that is consistent with its prominent shoreline location and its signature design, by I. M. Pei and Partners of New York.
"The building in a sense is located like a lighthouse. We thought how nice it would be to have light radiating out from the roof in all directions," he said. "It's going to be very much of a landmark, like a lighthouse seen from the beach. It will be a reference point."
Calls plan unique
The designer added that he is not aware of any other buildings that have been lighted the way the World Trade Center will be. The key, he said, is the use of mirrors to catch the light and then reflect it out over the harbor.
Joseph Aversa & Sons was the low-bid contractor hired to complete the job in time for New Year's Eve. The lights will be 4,500-watt spotlights, shining from five points around the base of the building. At present, Mr. Grenald said, there are 1,000-watt incandescent lamps at the base, but they illuminate only the first three floors of the building.
Mr. Grenald predicted that the new lighting system would be more energy-efficient and less expensive than the incandescent lights in place now. At a cost of about four cents per kilowatt-hour, he said, the five new lights will cost about $1 an hour to operate.
Lights on at night
Exact hours of illumination have not been determined, but the state's plan calls for the lights to come on at dusk and shine during the evening.
Since it opened, the World Trade Center has been Maryland's leading symbol of international trade and home for both the executive and marketing offices of the Maryland Port Administration. It is currently 98 percent leased by a mixture of public agencies and private companies, including numerous shipping lines from around the globe.
Others lit up
Other buildings that have been illuminated in recent years include the 28-story tower at 100 E. Pratt Street; the HarborView condominium tower off Key Highway; Commerce Place at 1 South Street, and the domed Billings Administration Building on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in east Baltimore.
On Nov. 1, NationsBank Corp. will re-light the top of its recently regilded office tower at 10 Light Street.