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Burlington Lights Up the Downtown

Jason Parrott
The Downtown Burlington Lightscape Project illuminates First Congregational Church (Left) and First United Methodist Church (Right)

Hundreds of people filled downtown Burlington Friday night for the unveiling of the Downtown Burlington Lightscape Project. Organizers says it was the culmination of five years of hard work and a sign of what's to come for the district.

The crowds gathered at what the lightscape committee considered the "best viewing locations:  The intersection of 4th and Washington, the intersection of  6th and Division, and Martini’s Grille. But based on the activity downtown, it seems plenty of people just looked for an open spot to enjoy the show.

As the clock struck 9:00 p.m., the church bells started to toll and the lights came on. Eight downtown buildings basked in a bright, white glow provided by large, brand-new exterior lights.

  • St. Paul’s Catholic Church (508 N. Fourth)
  • Christ Episcopal Church (623 N. Fifth)
  • First Presbyterian Church (321 N. Fifth)
  • First Congregational Church (313 N. Fourth)
  • First United Church of Christ (611 Columbia)
  • First United Methodist Church (421 Washington)
  • Des Moines County Heritage Center (501 N. Fourth)
  • Majestic Estate (620 Washington)

The lights illuminate the steeples for each building. The eight buildings join the steeple of St. John’s Catholic Church, which has been lit since 2010 thanks to a donation from a local resident.

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
Two more steeples from the Lightscape Project: Des Moines County Historical Society (left) and St. Paul's Catholic Church (right).

Steve Frevert, Executive Director of Downtown Partners, said that after volunteers saw St. John’s, they wanted to install lights throughout the downtown district.

“It’s probably one of the most visible landmarks in Burlington,” said Frevert. “It’s one of the first things you see, long before you cross the bridge from Illinois, so that turned out really well. That got us thinking about, we have all of these other beautiful churches and historic buildings with towers that kind of surround our downtown. You know, Burlington is situated in a valley, so it is very picturesque.”

Frevert said the planning and fundraising, which topped $250,000, took about five years to complete. He said the project is included in the city’s long-range plan for the downtown district.

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
The Capitol Theater hosted a pre-lighting reception complete with free brownies and ice cream.

Frevert said he was quite excited about the turnout, especially for the pre-lighting ceremony at the Capitol Theater. Several hundred people watched a short film on the project, listened to the municipal band, and ate free ice cream and brownies before hitting the streets.

Frevert said looking ahead, the lights at each location will turn on each night, sticking with a white tone.

“We had eight different groups of owners who we had to work with and we realized pretty early on that things like colored lights, similar to the Las Vegas effect, would probably not go over real well,” said Frevert.

He said the lights will shine brightly on weekends and be dimmed significantly during the week. That’s expected to add about $20/month to each building’s electric bill.

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
SCC students produced a special video for the reception, which drew packed houses during both airings Friday night

  Jim Francisco, Pastor of First Congregational Church, said he felt a new energy in the downtown during the ceremony. So he said paying a few extra dollars a month for electricity could reap huge benefits in the future.

“The churches downtown came together in 1850 and decided to build all the churches downtown, which is very unusual and so we just wanted to continue that community involvement and be part of the church community.”

Joan Beckman attended the lighting ceremony with her sister and her friends -- even though she was not supposed to be there Friday night.

“I was supposed to be in Kansas City for a high school football game,” said Beckman. “I opted to go tomorrow instead because I did not want to miss this.”

Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR
Joan Beckman (far left) and her friends did a walking tour of the downtown after the lights turned on.

Beckman had an idea of what the lighting would look like, having caught a sneak peek while driving downtown earlier in the week. But she was still in awe when the lights came on, letting out “Oohs,” ‘Ahhs,” and “Oh gollys.”

Beckman and her friends watched the lighting ceremony from 4th and Washington, before climbing up the 4th Street hill to get a closer look at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. She said the event reminded her of old times, meeting with friends and family on a Friday night in downtown Burlington.

Organizers hope to see more of that in the future: Burlington residents exploring the downtown district at night and visitors experiencing the city's history and architecture. They said this is a three-phase project, with Phase 2 being the lighting of the bridge spanning the Mississippi River and Phase 3 being the lighting of Snake Alley.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.