Light + Time Tower: A New Perspective, A Love Story
If you were living in Raleigh in 1995, you may remember the heated debate over a hunk of scrap metal on Capital Boulevard. Instead of fixing up our roads, paying our teachers, or improving education programs for youth, the city poured $51,100 into a miniature, glorified cell-phone tower with pretty prism colors.
It was called “The Light + Time Tower,” and it dominated the news and politics in Raleigh for longer than any art project I’ve heard of since.
But I want to change the story.
Instead of a story about angry Raleigh-ites and wasted money, I’m going to tell you about a man in love with his art, a widow who watched her husband die, and a city that received a gift it still hasn’t learned to fully appreciate.
I was only a teenager when the tower went up, but I remember the controversy. My mom and I went down to Capital Boulevard, because we’d heard there was an amazing piece of art, metallic and silver and plain, that surprised drivers by shining rainbow colors as we drove past. I was excited, then disappointed, as the sun wasn’t at quite the right angle to reveal the tower’s magic. Since then, millions of people have been disillusioned by the Light + Time Tower.
But while we were complaining about artist Dale Eldred’s poor excuse for art, his widow Roberta Lord was mourning the loss of her husband. Internationally beloved for his metallic, prismatic sculptures, Dale’s life ended on a low note, as his final piece of art, dedicated to our home city, was rejected by the very people for whom he created it. Don’t get me wrong. I thought the statue was a waste of money, too. But now I kind of feel like a jerk for badmouthing his final creation.
It’s particularly poignant that Dale Eldred was a truly passionate artist, who literally died trying to save his art supplies from rising flood waters. According to the Kansas City Star, Dale and his wife were fighting flood waters, working together to pull his art to higher ground, when he fell through the floor right before her eyes. He dropped 20 feet and died at the hospital a few hours later. This is a man who was willing to fight and die for his art–with a wife who raced raging tides to support her husband’s dream.
After he passed away, Roberta was the one who negotiated and continued the Light + Time project with the City of Raleigh, a grieving widow ensuring her husband’s final piece was completed–all so it could be criticized by our city.
I’m not blaming the critics. God knows, I was one of them, too, until I really stopped to consider the artist’s story. The Light + Time Tower is his legacy. And he was passionate enough to fight for it.
I came across another perspective on the Tower while doing research for this piece, and I think Scott Huler says it best in his book On the Grid:
“Whoever decided that drivers slogging their way through traffic during rush hour deserve a piece of artwork to look at should get an infrastructure medal, but instead critics immediately attacked it as looking like a broadcast antenna or cell phone tower. Precisely. Could there be any more perfect response to those fatuous cell phone towers dressed up to look like a tree drawn by a young child who has never seen a tree? I claim we need to start loving our infrastructure and celebrating it.”
And guess what? No other city in the world has a Light + Time Tower like ours, with a story quite like ours. For better or worse, this art is part of Raleigh’s personality, history, and collective identity. We may as well love it.