SALT LAKE CITY — Generations of Utahns have become familiar with the Walker Center and it’s red and blue neon lights up top.
Opened in 1912 as the Walker Bank Building; its 18 floors and height of over 200 feet made it the tallest building between Chicago and San Francisco at the time.
A tower added to the top of the building in the 1940s helped transmit radio and television broadcast signals, but by the 1950s more substantial radio and TV transmitters had been built on mountaintops.
In the 1950s, the tower atop the Walker Center transitioned into a weather tower, with red and blue neon lights projecting a short-term forecast. The code follows:
- BLUE = CLEAR SKIES
- FLASHING BLUE = CLOUDY SKIES
- RED = RAIN
- FLASHING RED = SNOW
While the flashing neon lights and letters on the roof have been consistent since the 50s, the tower itself has undergone changes over the years, and was completely rebuilt under the direction of current owners Jim Tozer and Raju Shah of Vectra Management Group in 2008.
In December 2021, the tower lights seemingly went out.
FOX 13 News was given exclusive access to the transition being made. Over the course of two months, workers from Young Electric Sign Company installed a new state-of-the-art LED light system.
“The tower now will be able to have any color under the rainbow, as well as various animation effects,” said Shah.
On the evening of February 3, the new lights were turned on for the first time.
Tozer, who admired the Walker Center’s lights while growing up in Salt Lake City, provided the ceremonial “flip of the switch” during a short rooftop ceremony. The first lights to shine provided a full spectrum of colors at once.
Building Manager Chloe Gehrke said the traditional red and blue colors will still be seen on many nights, but future holidays and special events will likely be acknowledged by changing the colors of light on the tower.
“We wanted to better engage with the community. For various events, like Breast Cancer Awareness in October, the tower will be pink, and on St. Patrick’s Day, green,” said Gerhrke.
The building’s owners say the LED lights will also use less electricity, lowering the building’s carbon footprint.
Neon lights have a warmth and nostalgia all their own, but caring for the massive lengths of neon — more than one mile — in the previous design, was challenging. The glass tubes were susceptible to breakage from changes in weather, and the occasional (and illegal) remote controlled drone striking the tower.
“LED will have better longevity and should make it last for many decades to come,” said Shah.
David Amott, Executive Director of Preservation Utah, has long admired the Walker building and its tower. While his organization often works to preserve vintage neon signs, he says he understands the transition to LED at the historic Walker Center.
“What they’ve done is created a sign that really replicates that look, then has this flexibility of acknowledging so much more than the weather. Having it reborn to live well into the 21st century and beyond is a great thing,” said Amott.