How the Duke Energy Center lights came to personify uptown Charlotte

Duke Energy Center flashes its lights every hour on the hour on Tuesday May 03, 2016.
Duke Energy Center flashes its lights every hour on the hour on Tuesday May 03, 2016. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

It’s 48 floors tall and is visible from 20 miles away, in the next town … in the next county … in the next state.

But height isn’t what turned the 6-year-old Duke Energy Center into the new symbol of Charlotte’s economic vibrancy. (The Bank of America tower is taller at 60 stories.)

It’s the center’s computerized, impossible-to-ignore light display.

Every night, property owner Wells Fargo sets the tower and its handle-shaped crown ablaze with 520 lamps, each designed to change color with a few taps on a laptop.

The Wells Fargo Lights even have their own Twitter account (@WFLightsCLT) with 11,700 followers, all of whom learn via daily tweets what the changing colors represent.

Yes, the lights have meaning.

This week, the center is red and yellow to symbolize the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte. Two weeks ago, it was purple every hour on the hour to mark the death of pop star Prince. And in prior weeks, it has been lit to recognize dozens of charitable causes, two nations hit by terrorists and the Carolina Panthers’ winning season.

Moira Quinn of Charlotte Center City Partners says the building now “personifies the skyline.”

“The lights lend personality to the skyline in a way that it didn’t have before,” Quinn says. “It’s become a piece of art.”

It’s a surprising outcome, given the entire project – which includes a condo tower and four cultural sites – unraveled in the banking crisis of the recession.

The tower was to be the world headquarters of Charlotte-based Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank. But then Wachovia vanished after being acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008, leaving the Charlotte project in limbo.

Former Wachovia executive Bob Bertges dreamed up the headquarters project, and he remembers going to Wells Fargo with a plea to save his building.

“It was still under construction when it all changed. I hopped on a plane and met with (Wells Fargo CEO) John Stumpf, and I just wanted him to understand what the project meant to the community,” recalls Bertges, who is now corporate property manager for Wells Fargo.

“I had all this passion, and he could feel it. But he told me: ‘Bob, we have a lot of things to evaluate, and I can tell you right now, if I have to choose between jobs for people and a building, I’m going to choose jobs every time.’ 

Not just a building

Bertges refused to give up hope. He began looking for tenants to fill the tower in Wachovia’s absence, which led to Duke Energy. He threw in naming rights as enticement, not just for the building but the entire campus.

It became the Duke Energy Center, and the former Wachovia Cultural Campus became the Levine Center for the Arts, with a $15 million gift from philanthropists Sandra and Leon Levine. (Duke Energy gave $5 million.)

“I felt like a father giving away his daughter in marriage,” Bertges said of the name changes.

Everything about the Wells Fargo campus at Tryon and Stonewall streets was groundbreaking for Charlotte.

Wachovia wanted to attract the best of the best people in the financial industry, so it did a survey of what such people want in a hometown.

At the top of that list was more to do, including arts and cultural activities, so Bertges created a headquarters that was also an arts and cultural campus. Adjacent sites were offered to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, the John S. and James L. Knight Theater and the Mint Museum Uptown. Then a luxury apartment tower was thrown in for good measure.

As for the elaborate lights, they were an afterthought born of a recollection from Bertges’ childhood in Pittsburgh.

“My dad worked for a natural gas company called Equitable Gas, and at the top of their building in downtown Pittsburgh, they had a flame that would be blue when it was clear weather and red when it was going to be bad weather,” he remembered.

“So one day we’re sitting with a bunch of architects, and I said: ‘Why don’t we put lights on the building that we can somehow control?’ I didn’t know what I meant by that. I just knew I wanted to create vibrancy in this part of town.”

And he has, too.

Michael Smith of Charlotte Center City Partners says the mixed-use project changed the city by creating an additional “center of gravity” for uptown, which had long considered Trade and Tryon streets the center of its universe.

“You see all the development happening east and west of Stonewall? It’s all related to that building, even down into South End. We couldn’t have asked for better.”

Lights promote community

Bertges says he expected the Wells Fargo Lights to get a lot of attention, though he didn’t anticipate a committee would have to be created to handle the flood of requests from people to “book” the lights.

In 2015, nearly 240 community organizations, causes and events got free promotion through the lights program. Nearly 200 have already been locked in for this year.

Molly Fowler is the person on Bertges’ corporate properties team who leads the committee, which she says became necessary when the bank started getting unusual requests, such as brides-to-be who wanted building colors to match their wedding, or guys who wanted the building lit as the backdrop for a marriage proposal.

Committee members eventually decided the lights should be devoted to efforts that have a local community impact or to mark significant global events.

Money is not an issue, because of the energy-efficient system put in place. It costs only $3 an hour to light the building.

Gavin Hribar (pronounced Rebar) is the committee member who operates the lights and creates the computerized light show that explodes along the building’s edges every hour on the hour. He actually drives around Charlotte with a laptop at night, seeing how distance changes the colors. If red looks orange in south Charlotte, he makes adjustments.

Bertges is proud of how it all turned out, but he says credit should also be given to retired Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson.

For years, Charlotte-based Wachovia operated in the shadow of Bank of America, which famously has headquarters at Trade and Tryon streets in the tallest building between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Thompson gave Bertges one simple rule to follow on the project. “He told me: ‘I don’t care if it’s the biggest building in Charlotte, just as long as it’s not the tallest, ’cause I don’t want to play this game where people think we’re trying to build the taller building,’ ” Bertges recalls. “So I built a really simple, square building.”

And he decorated it with 520 lamps.