Light Boston Turns 20

By Dan Murphy

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Light Boston seeks to illuminate architectural landmarks and other notable locations by championing for appropriate exterior lighting to enhance the city’s nighttime social vitality, aesthetics and public safety.

The origins of the not-for-profit, citizen’s advocacy group dates back to 1996, when longtime Mount Vernon Street resident Anne B. R. Witherby summoned her brother-in-law, Todd Lee, an architect, then of Bellingham Place, founder of TLCR Architecture and one-time stage lighting designer, to her apartment across the Common to see something she found egregious: the State House’s gold dome actually disappeared from the skyline at night due to a lack of exterior lighting.

“We thought it was an outrageously missed opportunity, and wondered what else in the city needed good lighting,” said Lee, who now serves as president of Light Boston’s board of directors.

The group soon organized and successfully lobbied the state agency in charge of renovations going on at the time to upgrade the exterior lighting of the Capitol building.  Since this initial undertaking, it has also worked to better illuminate the Old State House; the Old South Meeting House; four upper Tremont Street churches (Kings Chapel, Tremont Temple Baptist Church, Park Street Church and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul); Mission Hill’s main streets; and the Chinatown Gateway, among other projects.

To achieve this, Light Boston has worked with the city and state agencies coordinating with the Charles River Conservancy, Friends of the Public Garden, Friends of Fort Point Channel and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, among other nonprofits.

“We identify opportunities and help get the projects done,” said MaryLee Halpin, Light Boston’s program director. “We know the people who must approve and find funding sources, as well as knowing most of the light-designers and contractors in town.”

In 2000, the City partnered with Light Boston to draft “The Diamond Necklace. A Plan for Lighting 25 Cultural and Historic Sites in Downtown Boston.” This plan was named to complement and pay homage to the Emerald Necklace –  a system of linked parks and open spaces citywide deigned by renowned 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

As part of its mission to promote light as an artistic medium, Light Boston worked with Lana Nathe of Light Insight Design, Inc., in 2008 to rally more than 25 local light designers for IlluminaleBoston, a festival that used the city’s “urban architecture as an outdoor canvas for light.”  Three years later, Light Boston partnered with the independent organization SHIFTBoston to sponsor GLOW, an international competition for an artistic lighting scheme for Copley Square.

In addition to doing projects, the group seeks to educate the public on the subject of better illumination and, on Nov. 7, partnered with the BSA Placemaking Network to lead a panel discussion at the Boston Society of Architects on the value of civic exterior lighting, focusing on the transformation of Fort Point Channel. On Thursday, Lee will moderate a panel discussion entitled “It Takes a Village to Light a City: Illumination as Public Policy” at the Boston Convention Center. (Reservation for the Nov. 17 presentation should be made at abexpo.com.)

Today, as Light Boston prepares to enter its third decade, Lee is seeing an increased awareness and enthusiasm in the importance of installing improved lighting throughout the city.

“There’s a new interest in lighting among our increasing younger demographic because there are more people out at night, and as empty-nesters return to the city, lighting that is safe and non-glare is ever more important,” Lee said.

To get involved or donate to Light Boston, e-mail [email protected], and visit www.lightboston.org to learn more.

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