By the time the San Jose Light Tower collapsed on a windy December morning 101 years ago, the bent pipe structure had outlived its original mission by three decades. In its early days, six carbon arc lamps burned brightly to illuminate the city’s center from on high. The tower could be seen from San Francisco and was a source of great pride to San Jose, a municipality of just 12,567 residents and the first electrified city west of the Rockies.
“It is a great achievement for a town to light itself,” a gushing Vanity Fair wrote, calling it “a wonderful tower” that emitted “beautiful noonday, moon-like rays.”
San Jose has endured a long, difficult century since a brutal gust of wind deprived the community of its proudest civic icon. Without a tall skyline, distinctive mountain backdrop or water feature, and with no recognizable structure like St. Louis’ arch or Seattle’s Space Needle, San Jose has been a city without a marketable visual identity. It has been reduced to bragging about the number of days of sunshine or population rank, its disputed status as Silicon Valley’s capital or its proximity to sexier Northern California amenities. Many people think the city’s located somewhere in Southern California.
Now, three men aim to try to change that. They want to create a brand-able structure that draws on the region’s history and looks to the future. They want to rebuild the electric light tower.
As envisioned, the tower will stand in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, two-and-a-half blocks south of the original location. And this time, it will be brighter, more colorful and properly engineered. With computer-controlled LED lighting effects and possibly an observation deck at the top, it would be a stunning symbol.
In 2017, the city is once again ascendant, with a strong economy, a building boom and a creative urban culture coming into its own. San Jose’s transportation infrastructure and reserves of developable land have drawn the attention of technology giants like Apple and Google, as well as many startups.
The technological innovation and economic activity we see today are reminiscent of the decades that followed the California’s Gold Rush and statehood, which paralleled a global explosion of innovation as electrification took hold during the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century.
One of electric power’s first deployments was to light public spaces. Arc technology, which relied on glowing carbon rods like the ones that spark a welder’s gun, proved a more economical way to illuminate streets than gas lamps. A year before the tower’s celebrated debut in 1881, however, Thomas Edison established the first incandescent lamp factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Inexpensive filament bulbs could be pole-mounted alongside roads and walkways, pretty much ending central lighting initiatives.
Nonetheless, the light tower stood proudly at the intersection of Market and Santa Clara streets for 34 years, surviving the 1906 earthquake that reduced many commercial buildings to rubble. It would have remained longer had not harsh weather and rusting supports conspired to take it down. Decorated at holiday times and featured on postcards, the light tower was a tall, swinging stick on electrical engineering’s frontier, the region’s highest structure and, some believe, the tallest free-standing iron structure in the world at the time it was built.
San Jose, the valley’s commercial hub, was Silicon Valley’s forerunner, home to three higher education institutions back when Stanford was stables and trotting tracks.
The early 1880s, in particular, were years of tremendous breakthroughs in harnessing electricity’s potential. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell made the first wireless telephone call—solar powered, no less—using a beam of light. In 1881, Werner von Siemens rolled out the first electric streetcar and the International Electrotechnical Commission established the volt measurement. The same year, Nicolai Tesla signed on as chief electrician at the Budapest Telephone Exchange, which led to the development of alternating current. George Westinghouse began commercializing Tesla’s patents in 1888 to establish the AC system that’s still used today.
In San Jose, civic booster and newspaper publisher J.J. Owens began editorializing about the need to erect a light structure in May 1881, and he managed to squeeze the city’s commercial leaders for $5, $10 and $20 donations, as well as a big check from the newly established California Electric Light Co., to fund the 237-foot tower, roughly the same height as the blue 23-story residential building that today stands at the southwest corner of the Santa Clara and South Market intersection. The light tower was built and switched on just seven months later, a feat that still amazes anyone who has ever pulled a building permit at City Hall.
The French Connection
Eight years later, Paris completed the Eiffel Tower, more than four times as tall. It held the title of world’s highest structure from 1889 to 1930. Gustave Eiffel’s team, experienced at building bridges, understood the impact of wind on iron structures and curved the vertical supports. Like San Jose’s light tower, four arches connected the base, and engineer Maurice Koechlin’s first Eiffel Tower concept sketch shows horizontal braces that tied the uprights together in a manner like the rings that strengthened the light tower.
Video producer Thomas Wohlmut, who’s lived Copenhagen, Paris and Rome as well as Los Angeles, where he worked at CBS on the Mary Tyler Moore and Sonny & Cher shows, saw similarities between the structure, design and proportions of the two towers, such as the 3:1 ratio of the width of base to tower height. He set out to see if the local version influenced its famous European contemporary, as has long been argued without definitive proof, including an infamous stunt lawsuit in 1990, which the French failed to find humorous.
In two recent trips to archives on the continent, the multilingual, Australian-born San Jose resident says he found “no smoking gun.” But he remains convinced that the Eiffel’s designers were, at minimum, aware of the San Jose example. He produces copies of French language newspaper clippings from back in the day supporting his theory that the California design had garnered attention in European engineering circles.
Wohlmut superimposed a scaled image of the Eiffel Tower on the San Jose Light Tower and was struck by how the profiles aligned.
“The Eiffel Tower was, of course, 1,000 feet. Ours was 237. But, if you were to imagine standing on Market Street and you dropped the Eiffel Tower maybe a mile away, you’d see it line up. The angle and the proportions are nearly identical. So my theory is, [Koechlin] would have known about it,” the filmmaker says.
“I know that Eiffel wrote about reading stuff in La Nature, which also published articles about the tower of ours. So I know that they were looking at these things. Engineers typically look at what has been done before and they figure out ways to improve.”
Wohlmut also identified documents in the archives of Pedro de Saisset, a prominent French-born businessman and landowner who lived where The Tech Museum of Innovation stands today. The writings connect some of the circumstantial dots, making the case that members of the French intelligentsia and architectural community were at minimum aware of San Jose’s accomplishment. He discovered a note from de Saisset’s brother, a consultant to the Rothschild banking family, saying, “Thank you for sending me the Christmas edition of the Mercury News,” an issue that featured extensive write-ups on the light tower.
During one of his visits to ETH, the Swiss technology institute where Eiffel designer Koechlin’s papers are archived, Wohlmet captured the imagination of professors there, who organized a student competition to design a new light tower for Silicon Valley. The winning concept featured a spiral shape, suggesting that a new structure won’t simply be a historical replica of the humble, functional iron pipe cone that once bracketed a city intersection.
Like countless other great ideas floating around the valley, there are still a few details to work out, such as funding, engineering and governmental blessings.
Idea and Execution
Jon Ball is no stranger to ambitious undertakings. The recently retired executive is a veteran of big construction and during his 40-year career he oversaw the building of everything from Midwest nuclear power plants to more than a billion dollars in San Jose projects: downtown’s Marriott Hotel, the new Family Justice Center, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the 4th Street Parking Garage and remaking of San Jose International Airport.
As executive vice president of Hensel Phelps, one of his last projects before retiring was the construction of a public playground that brought his employer zero profit and was ridiculously small for a firm that manages the post-9/11 renovation of the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building.
The Rotary Playgarden, a $6 million park on Coleman Avenue that’s fully accessible to youngsters with physical limitations, opened in 2015. Part of the Guadalupe River Park, the Playgarden features custom-designed play equipment and art pieces. The initiative was seeded with private donations from members of the Rotary Club of San Jose and augmented with support from foundations, public agencies and corporations. It’s a one-of-a-kind public amenity that’s in a class by itself.
The Rotary Playgarden, Ball says, “is as rewarding a project personally as anything I've ever done, and I’ve done much larger and more sophisticated projects. None really gave me more satisfaction.”
Ball says he came up with the idea of rebuilding the light tower as he was leaving Hensel Phelps and completing the Rotary project. “Nobody approached me. It was an internal thought that I had. Looking at the smaller-scale version [of the light tower] at History Park, hearing my wife comment over the years that San Jose has no real definable architectural structures or features that would tell me this is San Jose,” he says, adding that the city has “somewhat of a nondescript skyline.”
“Then our Rotary Club donated money to pay for that little 30-foot light tower that was in Christmas in the Park last year. And I thought, ‘why don't we just rebuild some version of the old light tower and create a source of pride for gatherings and light it up like a tremendous light show. It's part of the vision, with LED lights that turn teal when the Sharks do something cool and win. Red, white and blue on the Fourth of July. The possibilities are endless.”
Solar panels and wind turbines could be placed on the tower, Ball adds, and lasers could be aimed at it from other parts of the park.
Ball met Wohlmut through the Rotary Club of San Jose. (This writer is also one of the club’s 464 members.) The builder and the historian recruited another Rotarian, well connected restaurateur Steve Borkenhagen, who’s been part of downtown’s many fits and starts over the past 40 years as the operator of Eulipia restaurant, Cafe Stritch and the San Pedro Square Market during its startup. The three established the San Jose Light Tower Corporation in March as a 501c3 charitable entity.
On Aug. 8, the corporation will hold its first fundraiser at Cafe Stritch to raise money for Wohlmut’s film, “The Light Between Two Towers,’’ which documents the connections between the San Jose and Paris structures. Borkenhagen calls the tower rebuilding a “legacy initiative” that will be a gift to future generations.
Wohlmut hopes the project will break new ground, and possibly include robotic movement. “Imagine a tower that changed shape every 10 minutes. That’s why it’s important to open this up to a worldwide competition, which we know we want to do,” he says.
Ball adds that the new tower would be capped at “250 to 260” feet, about the height of the Fairmont Hotel and the Adobe headquarters, unless San Jose can convince airport regulators to raise the height limits for structures in the flight path, an effort currently underway.
“We’d love to have an observation platform” and possibly a restaurant at the top, Ball says, though he admits it would “triple or quadruple the cost of the project” to add an elevator and staircase. He won’t quote any figures until a design is developed, but he acknowledges it will likely be in the low tens of millions. Money could be recouped through admission fees to the observation deck.
Ball says the team has met with city officials and business association leaders who are cautiously enthusiastic. “We’re still in the mode that we’re trying to get everyone as excited about this as we are,” he admits.
Nonetheless, as someone who oversaw the construction, renovation and demolition of terminals at San Jose International Airport, a $675 million project that included a consolidated car rental facility, flyover bridges and a parking deck clad with the “Hands” public art project, Ball is confident that a tower will rise. He projects 2020 as its target completion date.
“We can get this thing done,” he says.