Challenge The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, a 1907 Cass Gilbert masterpiece at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, contains many treasures. Portraits of explorers and carved wooden screens in the old collector's office vie to capture the visitor's eye, often losing out to the colorful fresco cycle of ocean liners adorning a Gustavino vault in the huge oval rotunda. But visitors need not enter what is now the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian to appreciate its Beaux-Arts grandeur. Flanking the north-facing grand entry stair stand regal female figures of Daniel Chester French's The Four Continents; surrounding them are Greco and Roman columns, pilasters, cartouches, more figures, and intricate arches.

During the day, that is. For years, this jubilant, layered composition fell relatively silent at night, a casualty of weak façade illumination. Excessive shadows and hot spots from metal halides confused the piano nobile. Incandescent and fluorescent fixtures at the sixth floor contrasted in a yellowish light, while mercury lamps turned the mansard roof a sickly green. The Four Continents turned dark each night in an alarming silhouette.

Yet rectifying the lighting scheme seemed straightforward to Randy Sabedra, principal of RS Lighting Design in Brooklyn, New York, who had trained with Howard Brandston, known for his seminal projects—relighting the Statue of Liberty (1986) and the New York Public Library (1995), work that has earned international renown and has come to set the standard in façade and monument illumination.

Architectural and Lighting Solution The first inspiration for Sabedra, in solving the lighting design, was the light condition expected to occur naturally on a picture-postcard evening. “Heavy moon glow is a common way of lighting cultural buildings in a city,” Sabedra explains. “The structures are usually low, with the urbanscape behind them, so there's a lot to compete with.” Both conditions affected the Custom House, so Sabedra considered several schemes for casting a cool, lunar light across the heavily ornamented walls. In fact, nodding to the depth of the neoclassical façades and the cultural trove they contain, he planned to highlight the window openings with “inside light” as well. “The building itself had activity inside, and we can let that come outward—the warm glow of the interior,” he explains. “The illumination of interior surfaces would extend outward to highlight façade openings, overhangs, and details.”

Sabedra's scheme also adds definition to the building's architectural features at night, highlighting important elements. The mansard's window frames, for example, each have a dedicated surface-mounted 39W PAR metal halide spotlight. The rest of the windows have hidden in their ledges 45W angled grazer strip fixtures with high-output LEDs.

One hundred years ago, this lighting scheme might have been accomplished entirely with incandescent lamps, but Sabedra's palette is thoroughly modern. The mansard roof takes 39W PAR metal halides. The “moon glow” effect radiates from 1000W ceramic metal halide floodlights, some mounted on surrounding buildings, providing a CRI of 85. Yoke-mounted surface floodlights train 39W and 70W PAR lamps through colored glass spread lenses at wall areas. Another series with 20W lamps accent pink granite figures standing on the sixth-floor cornice line. The high-output LED fixtures tucked inside ledges appear integral to the building, tuned to 3000K and aimed at 30 degrees or 60 degrees with a grazer distribution.

The entry welcomes with a generous yet very efficient luminosity: Tiny LED “puck” fixtures are concealed below glass panels at the Corinthian columns' bases, while two rows of LEDs uplight the vault from their capitals. Behind the noble figures of The Four Continents on the sidewalk level are 67.5W uplight grazers, with matching fixtures in the pits to each side.

“Cass Gilbert's sculptures can now be seen at night as if they were lit from the building itself,” Sabedra comments. “For views from afar, the entire building and streetscape are bathed in a cool glow of heavy moonlight.” The result reinforces the former prominence of the Custom House—the biggest local source of revenue—and its northward-facing stance, turning its back on the harbor. It faces instead Bowling Green, the city's first parade grounds and park, and its admiring public.


PROJECT | Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Relighting, New York City

CLIENTS | Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, U.S. General Services Administration

DESIGN TEAM | RS Lighting Design, Brooklyn, New York (lighting design); Patricia DiMaggio, Osram Sylvania (project facilitator)

PROJECT SIZE | 2,000 square feet

WATTS | 4 watts per square foot


RENDERINGS | Randy Sabedra, RS Lighting Design, Brooklyn, New York

MANUFACTURERS | Hydrel, io Lighting, Osram Sylvania, Selux