Douglas Leigh paints New York night sky from palette of lights

CONSIDER the New York skyline at night: It dazzles with radiance. From a tall building or airplane, the sparkling sight looks like a tray strewn with diamonds. On the ground, lit-up towers sharply define the city, catching the breath of individuals who round a corner suddenly to be faced with its grandeur.

And in the brilliance of Manhattan, from Wall Street to midtown, the touch of Douglas Leigh is ubiquitous. An advertising executive-turned-illuminator, Mr. Leigh is responsible for the colorful displays that have lit the Empire State Building since 1976. He also created the lighting for the Citicorp building in midtown, whose silver exterior plays beautifully in the clouds on stormy nights.

Leigh supervised the renovation of the Crown Building at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, putting 23-carat gold leaf on its exterior and lighting it up like an ornate jewel. He took the Helmsley Building - dwarfed by the Pan Am building that now towers over it - scrubbed it, added gold leaf, and lit it with gold-colored lights at night. Looking down Park Avenue in the evening, the eye is immediately drawn to the smaller building.

''I have a lot of fun,'' says the man who first became famous for his spectacular billboards on Broadway, including a Pepsi-Cola waterfall that circulated 50,000 gallons of water a minute and a steaming cup of A&P coffee. ''Sometimes I get so close to it, I don't realize the effect it has,'' he says.

Although Leigh points out that his work is a business that aims to show off a building, he says people often come up to him to say, ''What a nice thing you are doing for the city!''

But chatting with Leigh in his midtown office - filled with models of buildings, plans for future projects, and photos of his accomplishments - one gets the impression that the joy people get from his buildings is one of the best rewards he receives from his work. After more than 40 years in advertising, Leigh's second career is one that enables him to give the city ''more spirit.''

A reception was held on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building last week , in part to honor Mr. Leigh for his achievements, and in part to inaugurate a new lighting system for the building's exterior. A spokesmen for the building said Leigh's creations have made the city's nighttime skyline as exciting as architects and builders have made it during the day.

A tribute from New York Times architect critic Paul Goldberger, who once criticized a Leigh project, was read. Mr. Goldberger wrote that '' . . . with virtually all of the lighting that Douglas Leigh has done all over New York . . . he has worked with the spirit of the architecture and intensified it, brought it out as a fine-art restorer might bring out the colors in a faded work of art. He has not tried to redesign buildings; he has celebrated what is there, and helped us to see more of it, and in so doing to understand it better.''

Mr. Goldberger continued that Leigh is ''giving the city an entire nighttime identity. . . .''

Leigh got his start in advertising the same day Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. He found space for a billboard in the Bronx to advertise $4 -a-night rooms at Manhattan's St. Moritz hotel, then he had an artist construct a mock facade of the hotel for the ad. Real lights shone in the cut-out windows.

''In return, (the St. Moritz) gave me credit for a room and office, and a food allowance at Rumpelmayer's,'' says Leigh, referring to the cafe at the hotel, long known for its sodas and sundaes. That was the start of a long career that included such ad campaigns as his Broadway spectaculars and the use of surplus Navy dirigibles that crisscrossed the country for Wonder bread and Mobil Oil. Throughout his career, lighting was Leigh's specialty.

Before the Democratic convention here in 1976, Leigh was asked to head a committee on city decor during the convention, a post that was expanded to include the Bicentennial celebration. In addition to lighting fountains throughout the city, he talked Harry B. Helmsley, owner of the Empire State Building, into flooding the top of his building with red, white, and blue lights. He also told Mr. Helmsley he would be back with ideas that were more than just patriotic.

Leigh approached Helmsley for some more projects afterwards - and he approved them.

''I consider (Helmsley) my mentor,'' says Leigh, whose trace of a Southern accent comes from his childhood in Anniston, Ala., and education at the University of Florida. ''I was doing a civic job (in illuminating the Empire State Building). He was being a good citizen and patriotic fellow. I told him I'd be back, and he adopted my next plan. He got me started.''

Now Leigh is hoping to round out his achievements. Though his illuminated buildings provide landmarks on the night skyline, there are dark places on the city's profile he would like to see lit. He has his eye on several turrets on the east and west sides of town. These include a residential building on Central Park West, the Carlyle Hotel on the east side, a building on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and the Woolworth building near City Hall. The Carlyle is set to be done next year; the others are still proposals.

Though he will not give an exact figure, Leigh says his lighting jobs cost anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000. And he is quick to give credit to his lighting engineer and designers. New technology will mean easier changes of color for the lights on the Empire State Building, which change colors to mark everything from Christmas Day to the signing of the Camp David accords in 1979.

Not everyone approves of the multicolored lighting. In his tribute, Goldberger said his favorite color for the Empire State building is basic white light. Another observer agrees, saying she prefers the white lights on the art-deco Chrysler Building, which Leigh did not do.

Leigh admits the timing on his first project was wonderful. New York City was coming out of its financial doldrums at about the same time the energy crisis was ending. Halite lighting makes it much less expensive to operate the lights. And there is now plenty of electricity to power the illuminations, which are normally turned off around midnight, says Leigh.

There are many places to view the Manhattan skyline. Several tall buildings have observation decks or restaurants on top. A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at night gives a nice view, particulary of the downtown area. The bluff at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., presents a commanding sweep of most of the island. And Brooklyn and Queens have good vantage points.

In fact, one Manhattanite complains that the city skyline is not always so spectacular for the locals. ''It's nice from the reservoir in Central Park or in Brooklyn, but here (the buildings are so tall that) it is always dark.''

But there are good vistas from the ground. From the subway entrance at Astor Place, looking north, there are three Leigh creations in sight: the Consolidated Edison building on 14th Street is lit with white light. Further north on 23rd Street is the Metropolitan Life building, currently bathed in gold, orange, and red. Crowning the view is the Empire State Building.

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