An Update On The Story Behind the 'Flame' on Wisconsin Avenue

May 15, 2017

Update:

After WUWM’s story about the flame atop the Wisconsin Gas Light building aired, Sue Riordan emailed Bubbler Talk to share how original version the flame poem actually ended.

(For those curious, the final stanza of the original poem was: “When the flame’s in agitation, expect precipitation” and was later changed to “When there’s a flickering flame, expect snow or rain.”)

It turns out, Sue had been the Director of Corporate Communications from Wisconsin Gas/WICOR from 1983 to 1999 and has tons of great stories about Wisconsin Avenue’s flame.

So, thanks to Sue (her notes are in italics), here are some additional tidbits about the flame:

  • The flame was never operated by natural gas - yikes! No open flame up there, please! It was built with neon and argon tubing. (Our story incorrectly stated that the flame was originally lit by natural gas.)
  • What was the purpose of the flame? The late 1950s and 1960s marked the introduction of natural gas to communities outside the Milwaukee area. The flame, symbolizing a blue natural gas flame, was installed in 1956 to promote the expansion of natural gas for cooking, heating and industrial uses. By changing its colors, it also served as a weather beacon.
  • When the flame was installed, it could be seen for miles, including out in Lake Michigan where passing ships used it as a navigational tool. The fame also served as a welcoming beacon to air passengers in the night sky, taking off and landing at Milwaukee’s airport.
  • The flame was turned off from 1978 to 1985. When the energy crisis hit in 1978, the government called for the curtailment of all non-essential lighting uses for conservation purposes. That included extinguishing of the weather flame atop the building. During the years of the energy crisis, there was a growing perception that downtown Milwaukee was not safe at night. Gradually in the 1980s, downtown decorative lighting was restored.
  • Originally, who was in charge of turning on and off the flame? The employees of the Gas Control Department of the company constantly monitored the weather as part of their job managing gas supply and were in charge of operating the flame manually according to the forecast.

Original Story, May 5:

For nearly nine decades, Milwaukee has been home to a giant electronic flame atop a downtown building.

Laurel Marek has driven past the Wisconsin Gas Light Building many times and has wondered about its colorful flame. So, she turned to Bubbler Talk to ask: What do the different colors mean?

Now, maybe you already know that it changes colors to signal the next day’s weather forecast. What you may not know is, that there’s a little ditty that explains the colors:

When the flame is red, it's warm weather ahead!
When the flame is gold, watch out for cold!
When the flame is blue, there's no change in view!
When there's a flickering flame, expect snow or rain!

The Wisconsin Gas Light Building.
Credit MICAELA MARTIN

Peter Smith's version of the poem ends a little differently: "If the color is flickering, that means precipitation is going to occur." He worked for the investment group that previously owned the building and has studied up on the building's, and the flame's, history.

The building was constructed in 1930 as the headquarters of the Milwaukee Gas Light Company. The utility converted coal into natural gas, and sold it across the city for lighting, cooking and heat.

The flame had a specific message, Peter explains, especially in winter. His theory goes: “It was owned by the gas company, so they wanted to sell as much gas as they possibly could. So I think it kind of.. it follows. And that was the gas company’s way of saying, ‘We’re going go make an awful lot of money when that flame is gold.'"

Everything about the 20-story, Art Deco building was designed with intention – even its shape, he says. It goes from wider at the bottom to narrower at the top - reflecting the shape of a gas flame. A pamphlet on the building points out that the architects, Eschweiler and Eschweiler, placed granite bricks at the base of the structure that progressively lightened to cream-colored bricks at the top to “convey a sense of height and majesty."

A historic photo of the Wisconsin Gas Light Building with a gas flame light lit on the roof.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

The design also casts dramatic shadows on the building - when there is sun during the day and lighting at night.

As the years have gone by, Peter says the building’s owners have had to update the flame.

“The light got old and a little decrepit so they decided 'We’re going to take this out.' And that’s all done by twentieth century technology. So it’s like Christmas tree lights... The lights were those big bulbs and now they’ve got those little itty bitty tiny ones. And that’s what’s up there now,” he explains.

Downtown Milwaukee today, the flame still stands.
Credit MICAELA MARTIN

These day, the new lighting system atop the building does more than share the weather forecast.  The colors can be altered to reflect such things as a Milwaukee Bucks win or the American flag. And, the flame even has it's own app.

Peter hopes the community loves the iconic building as much as he does. “What can I say? It’s just an icon in Milwaukee, which I loved. And when I had the opportunity to invest in it, I said sure I will do it. And I was happy to be a part of the group that was involved with it.  And I think it’s something that everyone in Milwaukee appreciates."

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