Salt Lake City's iconic Walker Center tower shines again, but what do its new colors mean?

SALT LAKE CITY — Raju Shah wasn't sure what to expect when the switch was turned to illuminate the Walker Center tower.

But the moment he looked up at the tower above him, Shah, the managing director for Vectra Management Group, which owns the building, couldn't help but say to himself, "Oh, wow."

"When we lit up the tower, you could see the reflection in the glass of the other office towers, which was kind of spectacular," he said. "I would say that sort of universally we've gotten fantastic feedback, which is always touching."

With a flip of a switch, the iconic and historic Walker Center Tower came back to life Thursday evening, projecting a rainbow of colors that waved through the 64-foot structure for the first time since a project to repair the lights began late last year. The nearly three-hour spectacle provided residents a glimpse of how differently Salt Lake City's skyline will look lit up in the future.

Thanks to a recent upgrade from neon to LED, the tower atop the century-old Walker Center now has a whole host of new colors to work with — and it's brighter than ever.

"We have a much more colorful skyline in Salt Lake City," Shah said. "We have huge pride in this building — it's like I say, it's like the 'Great Lady of Salt Lake City.'"

The building has, for years, resonated with residents as the city's most popular unofficial meteorologist through its colors.

That wasn't always the case. The Walker Center Building opened in 1912, as the headquarters for the now-defunct Walker Bank. It was Utah's tallest building at the time. But the broadcast station KDYL added a weather beacon to a 90-foot radio and television tower it built atop the building in 1947, according to a report for the Nation Register of Historic Places. The beacon's colors changed to advise residents of the night's weather forecast.

Its two neon colors — blue and red — offered anyone passing by a forecast for the night. Solid blue meant clear skies were ahead; flashing blue signaled cloudy skies. Solid red warned of rain while blinking red warned of snow.

This quickly became a popular feature that lasted much longer than the KDYL's stay in the building. As noted in a report by the architecture firm CRSA, the station moved out two years later but the beacon stayed all the way through 1983, which is when a city ordinance outlawed the sign and it was taken down.

Vectra purchased the building in 2006, and after the ordinance was reversed, brought back what's now a 64-foot sign in 2008. Shah jokes that the weather tower's legacy was still so revered even decades later that bringing it back was one of the conditions of owning the property.

"And when we put the tower on ... we got a lot of attention at that point of time, especially from Utahns who remembered what it was like to look across the valley before the times of iPhones — because you had to look things up at that time," Shah said. "It was great for the marketing of the building."

But times have changed over the past decade. In the age of smartphones, people don't need to look up at a tower to quickly get a forecast anymore. Neon lighting also isn't very energy efficient; and, on top of that, the building couldn't offer ways to engage with the community like more recent buildings that can project multiple colors.

So, as the neon from the latest sign began to cause problems, they hired YESCo last year to replace neon lighting in the letters with LED strips. There was about a mile-long worth of neon strips with the old sign, according to Shah. Switching to LED is half of that.

The switch not only offers a brighter sign at half the energy consumption for a longer time, but it also offers the building's operators to provide many more colors than just red or blue. On Thursday, the tower projected yellow, orange, green, purple and pink for the time ever. Those colors were also projected through new animated effects. But what will those new colors mean?

The Walker Center lit up in different colors Thursday night. Crews recently replaced the old neon lighting strips with LED strips.
The Walker Center lit up in different colors Thursday night. Crews recently replaced the old neon lighting strips with LED strips. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

The new colors really won't mean anything in terms of weather, as the old neon sign did for decades.

Orange isn't the new blinking red, but it can be used to celebrate events or holidays, like Halloween. It can be switched to pink on Valentine's Day or green on St. Patrick's Day. The Walker Center can now mix and match, too, and light the tower red, white and blue on July Fourth — or celebrate LGBTQ Pride Week with the same assortment of colors it demonstrated for the first time Thursday night.

The Walker Center tower lit up in a rainbow of colors Friday. Crews replaced the old neon lighting strips with LED strips.
The Walker Center tower lit up in a rainbow of colors Friday. Crews replaced the old neon lighting strips with LED strips. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

If you have an idea for the color scheme on a particular night, the Walker Center is also open to requests from the public that "make sense," he added. They're looking into developing a calendar to schedule out color schemes.

In essence, the Walker Center tower is now Utah's Empire State Building — not just because the tower can change to reflect community interest but because it had already been a popular subject for photographers and even wedding proposals. In fact, Shah said people might be surprised how many special requests they had already gotten for proposals and that the center would consider changing the colors of the sign for couples.

"It is a pretty special place, and it has its place in the hearts of many people in Salt Lake," Shah said.

The Walker Center tower lit up in its default blue for clear skies Friday night.
The Walker Center tower lit up in its default blue for clear skies Friday night. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

That said, most people will still see the weather tower they remember from the past. Both solid and blinking blue and red will remain the default setting for the building. Shah explained that it's a part of the building's history and they'd like to stay true to that past.

The entire cost of the project was not disclosed. Shah explained that Vectra likely would have gone with LED back in 2008 but the technology still wasn't as prevalent as it is today. It wasn't much of an option.

With a new and improved sign, Shah is optimistic that the Walker Center will continue to be a fixture in Salt Lake City for years to come, as it has for the past century. It will only continue to draw in people, even if the sign won't just offer forecasts in the future.

"The Walker Center will never go out of style," he said. "At least, I won't have to worry about that."