The distinctive “1st” sign atop the First National Bank Building in downtown St. Paul was in danger of becoming a three-quarters sign after snow and wind damaged about 25 percent of the illuminated faces on each side last week.
Rather than settling for a partially illuminated sign on the tower at 332 Minnesota St., building owner Madison Equities of St. Paul opted to turn off the all the neon lights and start replacing them with energy-efficient LED fixtures.
Scott Goltz, vice president of Madison Equities, said the goal is to re-light the 50-foot-tall sign by the end of summer after investing about $500,000 to replace the lights and upgrade the structure.
“It’s a pretty significant project,” he said.
The new lights are part of nearly $6.5 million investment in energy efficiency upgrades throughout the tower.
Goltz said the owners are working with Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy on a “full energy package,” which will include upgrades to building systems, new lighting and other improvements.
Updating the sign’s lights, which include about 4,000 linear feet of tubing, was on the horizon. But the winter storm hastened the process.
“After so long, those neon tubes get so brittle and fragile,” Goltz said. “You are talking about 300-some feet up in the air – the wind blows pretty hard up there.”
The sign’s appearance won’t change after the new lights are installed, he said.
Mark Andrew, founder of GreenMark, an environmental consulting firm in Minneapolis, said LED lights can be engineered so as to preserve the “retro image” on a historically significant structure if desired.
“There is really no reason not to make the investment in energy-saving light innovations,” Andrew said. “It’s good for the community, their customers will support it and they will save money in the long-term.”
The First National Bank Building had bragging rights as the tallest building in St. Paul for 55 years, according to its website. The building’s East tower was completed in 1915, the West tower in 1931 and the North tower in 1970.
Amy Spong, a historic preservation specialist with the city, said the building was evaluated and determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Though it is not locally designated or protected as a historic landmark, that “doesn’t mean it’s not significant historically,” Spong said.
“A lot of people would recognize this as an important historic landmark; not just the sign, but the building and the sign,” she said.
Keeping the sign in good repair is no small investment.
The lighting was upgraded in the 1970s, and the previous owner had spent about $30,000 a year just to maintain the sign, Goltz said. That’s on top of the nearly $20,000 per year in energy costs to light it.
Goltz doesn’t know how exactly much the owners will save in energy costs by converting to the LED lights, but “it’s going to be significant,” he said.
Madison Equities paid $37.25 million for the building in November. The seller, New York-based Nightingale Group, purchased the building for $19.8 million in June 2012.