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Shining new light on Smith Hill: RI shows off new State House lighting system

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- Rhode Island's State House is already an architectural marvel. Its dome is the fourth-largest self-supported marble dome in the world, following St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Minnesota State Capitol and the Taj Mahal in India.

Now, the 114-year-old landmark has something else that sets it apart: a high-tech, outdoor LED lighting system.

"We haven't found other states that light up their domes, so this might be unique to Rhode Island," said Carole Cornelison, director of the R.I. Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), which oversees the project. 

The new illumination not only shows off the capitol's architecture - it also allows Rhode Islanders to mark holidays or shine a light on their charitable causes.

The 153 LED lights shine on the top and sides of the building, communicating with each other over a network to create up to 16 million color combinations.

"What we're looking at now is basically a button for each of those colors or holidays," explained Dane Kwiatkowski, project manager for DCAMM, as he demonstrated the software that controls the lights. Holidays like Halloween, Independence Day and Christmas have presets that can be switched on with the click of a mouse.

The State House has been lit by colorful lights for years, but the old process required changing the bulbs or putting a colored film or "gel" over the fixture. It was a process that could take hours, if not days. Now, the color of the LEDs can be switched remotely from a laptop with a single keystroke.

"We've been working on getting the technology in place to do this for probably over a year," Cornelison said. "Within the last several months we've pulled that all together."

The state spent nearly $675,000 from the R.I. Capital Plan Fund, a savings account for infrastructure projects, to purchase and install the new lighting system. Cornelison argued it was a good one-time investment because the newer version is much more energy- and cost-efficient.

"Switching to an LED-type fixture saves a substantial amount of electricity," Kwiatkowski explained. "So we achieved an approximate savings on the exterior lighting of about 56 percent over the old system and extended the life of the fixtures to about 20-plus years." 

When the State House isn't being lit to mark a holiday or special occasion, the colors are being paid for by nonprofits who want to bring awareness to their organizations or causes. 

The state has typically charged groups $500 a week to illuminate the State House in the colors of their choice, something that's generated $27,000 since the 2013-14 fiscal year. The money went into the state's general fund and was then cycled back to pay for the labor it took to change the colors, the electricity used to power the bulbs and maintenance of the system itself, Cornelison said.

Since the process of changing those colors is now much less labor-intensive, state officials say they'll soon release updated pricing for organizations.

But though the lights themselves have changed, the process of getting to them hasn't.

A locked door that looks like it might lead to a utility closet on the State House's third floor actually reveals a dimly lit, tightly wound spiral staircase.

The journey to the 24 lights surrounding the iconic dome isn't short: 144 stairs lead to a door that opens to the round marble landing surrounding the dome. Then there's another set of stairs to the very top, where a hatch opens to a small balcony beneath the Independent Man.

Those at DCAMM think the lighting project is a unique way for people to connect with their state capitol and let their true colors shine. 

"I mean, it's the people's State House right?" Cornelison said. "We want to support that and allow people ... to utilize that to highlight their events or causes."


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