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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

At the Empire State Building, management has gotten into some trouble for plans to illuminate the top floors with red lights tonight. The lights would honor the 60th anniversary of Communist China. Protesters turned out to denounce the illumination. But red is not the color of most interest at the Empire State Building these days - it's green.

As Lara Pellegrinelli reports, the building is getting a $550 million environmental upgrade and renovation.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Even before the Empire State Building opened in 1931, its main attraction for sightseers was somewhere up above the sidewalk.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Already, she's higher than any other building in the world. And when she's finished, she'll be 102 stories.

PELLEGRINELLI: But there are new reasons to linger on the ground level, besides the line for the observatory.

Unidentified Man #2: All observatory guests, please use the revolving doors.

PELLEGRINELLI: Specifically, the Celestial Mural. The collection of golden panels runs across the ceilings of the entire lobby.

Mr. JEFF GREENE (President, EverGreene Architectural Arts): It was an urban legend. Those preservationists and historians knew that it was there, but the general public had forgotten about it. It was covered over for 46 years.

PELLEGRINELLI: Jeff Greene is the president of EverGreene Architectural Arts. A team of artists from his studio started their work to restore the mural by removing a dropped ceiling that had hidden it since the early 1960s.

Mr. GREENE: The World's Fair was coming to New York, people wanted to modernize. They wanted to improve the light levels. The Chrysler Building, they just stuck down lights right at the Edward Trumbull mural.

PELLEGRINELLI: What EverGreene's team found in the Empire State Building's lobby was in even worse shape. It had been riddled with holes and covered in layers of white paint. They stripped small sections and eventually hit gold leaf.

Mr. GREENE: Knowing what it was made out of didn't tell us what it looked like.

PELLEGRINELLI: Luckily, the metallic surface under the paint held a small electrical charge — enough to attract dirt in patterns that outlined the design, almost like a magnetic drawing board. What they discovered was suns, moons and stars stylized to look like cogs and gears — a celebration of the Machine Age, designed by artist Leif Neandross.

Under the sterile UV lights in the old white ceiling, the lobby's gray and pink marble corridors used to look a little like cold roast beef. Now they conjure up a champagne cocktail.

Ms. LISA KERSAVAGE (Senior Director, Advocacy and Public Policy, Municipal Art Society): It looks like they're doing just a wonderful job — and I'm not one that often says that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PELLEGRINELLI: Lisa Kersavage is senior director of advocacy and public policy for the Municipal Art Society, a century-old organization that fights for intelligent urban planning, design and preservation.

She points out that construction-related debris accounts for 60 percent of New York City's waste stream. And she wants to change a popular misconception: that it's better to demolish old buildings and erect new green ones.

Ms. KERSAVAGE: About 55 percent of New York City's building stock was built before 1940. And what's important about that is that pre-1940 buildings were built before the era of cheap energy and also before the era of mechanical systems like air conditioning and heating. And so they were built to work with the environment better than later buildings.

PELLEGRINELLI: Take the Empire State Building's windows.

Ms. KERSAVAGE: Windows tend to be the first thing people want to change when they want to do an energy retrofit. And there's so many ways to repair and improve the efficiency of existing windows instead of throwing them into a landfill. It's really important in terms of the efficiency, but also in terms of the architectural character of the building.

PELLEGRINELLI: So the Empire State Building Company decided to refurbish its 6,500 thermopane windows. Anthony Malkin heads the company.

Mr. ANTHONY MALKIN (Owner, Empire State Building Company): We're taking them out, we're breaking the seals, we're inserting a mylar sheath. And then we are resealing them with krypton argon gas and reinstalling them. All of this will be done without the windows ever leaving the building.

PELLEGRINELLI: Malkin says the windows and other upgrades will result in a nearly 40 percent energy savings. And he's promised to share the new techniques developed during the restoration.

With the majority of New York's greenhouse gas emissions coming from the construction and operation of buildings, that could help other architectural gems have a golden future — whatever the color of their lobby ceilings.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

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