A pivotal moment in American history was the ad hoc lighting signal that set into motion Paul Revere's famous midnight ride. Two lanterns were set in the steeple of Boston's Old North Church on an April evening in 1775 to alert the colonial silversmith that the British were heading toward Lexington and Concord by sea. By then, the church's steeple had already been a landmark on the city's skyline for five decades.
The church remains a functioning liturgical space for the North End neighborhood, and its historical legacy is overseen by the secular Old North Foundation. An extensive master plan is now being prepared by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, but the most recent lighting overhaul is the result of another ad hoc effort that arose when a party planner contacted local lighting designer Lana Nathe of Light Insight for help illuminating the interior for a fundraiser last December.
The problem was pretty straightforward. The Old North Church's simple two-story worship space remains much as it was during Revere's day, with second-floor galleries on two sides and a choir loft to the rear. The primary light fixtures from the colonial era—candlelit chandeliers hanging over the pews and wall-mounted candle sconces—remain in place. “You go back to 1723, that was the only illumination that was available,” says Old North Foundation executive director Ed Pignone. The church's upper galleries have five barrel vaults on each side of the nave that distribute daylight from arched windows. The existing cornices at each vault had been retrofitted years ago with cove light fixtures that provided a minimal level of artificial illumination.
Nobody knows the exact age of the cove light fixtures, but their drawbacks were obvious. They used Lumiline incandescent lamps—which typically run hot, use lots of energy, provide little light in an unfortunate gold tone, and are increasingly difficult to replace as fewer companies continue to stock the bulbs. “They only had one lamp on in each cove, and [the coves are] 10 feet long,” says Nathe. Since each 10-foot-long cove was being lit with a single 30-watt fixture, the result was an inadequate three watts per foot. “And there was no architectural definition at all,” says Nathe.
Adding to the stress of the three-week timeframe for design and installation were the available resources. Nathe donated her design services to the project and was responsible for getting the fixtures for free as well. And the solution had to work with the existing knoband-tube wiring system in the church. “There's no real juice coming to them,” says Nathe. “I had no choice but to use LEDs.”
Nathe specified eW Cove Powercore fixtures manufactured by Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions, and the product was donated by Boston Light Source. Each linear fixture was installed atop the existing cornices. Settlement in the almost three-century-old building meant that not every cove was identical. The fixtures were chosen for their ability to be individually adjusted in the field to accommodate the existing conditions. Installation was accomplished in three days and required a certain amount of gymnastic flexibility on the part of the team. Each back-to-back strip of lights on opposite sides of the columns facing the two-story nave had to be plugged into a single existing outlet. Thus the wiring had to be threaded over the top of the columns without pitching either the fixtures or installers into the pews below. Since no new wiring or controls could be added during the constrained schedule, the new fixtures had to work with the old dimmers as well.
Despite the daunting conditions, Nathe was able to enhance the perception of the building's architecture with a nuanced approach to lighting design. She held the fixtures back a foot or so from the inside corner of each vault. “If you fill in everything, your eye doesn't do anything,” she says. “We didn't want to see a sharp line up against the wall.” She specified a color temperature that's perceived differently from day to night. “During the day, it looks really crisp,” she says. “At night, it warms up.” The Philips fixtures accomplish this by alternating warm white and cool white lamps on each strip of the eW cove fixture. Despite the LED's increasing popularity, Nathe notes that it isn't always a perfect solution, but it was the best for this particularly difficult problem. “We saved energy, they have dimming capabilities, and there's no noise,” she says.
The Old North Foundation's Ed Pignone is responsible for keeping the Old North Church's literal and metaphoric flames aglow. “This illumination is provided in an inconspicuous way,” he says. While he will continue to burn the candles on the first floor of the church, he doesn't expect to replace the new LED lamps for at least a decade. By then, he may have to consider LEDs for the two lantern lights in the steeple. They were replaced with compact fluorescent fixtures just a few years ago..