Church that was beacon for Paul Revere now lit by LEDs

One LED if by land, and two if by sea?

The Old North Church, a beacon for Paul Revere's famous warning of the movement of British forces, and a symbol of the American Revolution, has gone high-tech with the installation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

The energy-efficient lights illuminate ceiling vaults inside the church, whose steeple was used to display two lanterns as a signal about British troop movements on April 18, 1775 — the night described in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem, which included the line: "One if by land, and two if by sea."

LEDs haven't yet replaced the slightly less-modern compact fluorescents that the church began using two years ago in its modern versions of the steeple lanterns.

The 18 strips of LEDs inside church's sanctuary — replacements for old-fashioned incandescents — may seem an anachronism at the most visited historic site in a city with a rich Revolutionary War legacy. But the lights are tucked into crown molding, illuminating the graceful white ceiling arches while the lights themselves are hidden from direct view by tourists and worshippers below.

"What we've added is light, and beauty," said Ed Pignone, executive director of the Old North Foundation of Boston, which oversees the 285-year-old church.

One of the church's annual half-million visitors agreed the installation was done with historic sensibility.

"It's completely transparent and invisible," said Jim Peluso of Richmond, Va., one of a handful of Old North visitors on a chilly winter Friday. "I guess it's no different than adding running water, or an HVAC system in the church, right?"

The LEDs were donated by Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions, which planned to announce the Old North installation Monday. The company was formed through last year's acquisition of Color Kinetics, a Burlington, Mass.-based LED designer, by Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics NV.

Old North's ceiling vaults had been only dimly lit by the old incandescents, and they frequently burned out, Pignone said. The LEDs are projected to last at least 25 times as long as the incandescent bulbs, at five times the efficiency. They also do not give off as much heat as the older lights, which caused ceiling paint to peel prematurely.

LEDs are similar to computer semiconductors, but they convert electricity directly to light, rather than heating a metal filament to the point of glowing incandescence. The light streams out of tiny glass domes, about the size of matchstick heads. They are more expensive than incandescents and compact fluorescents, but are being touted as eventual replacements for those lights because of their growing efficiency and predictions of increasingly lower costs.

They're among several concessions to modernity and convenience at Old North, the home of an Episcopal congregation. Speakers hang from columns above the pews. While the church's first floor has no artificial lighting, the upper floor is lit with incandescents.

"Churches are organic," Pignone said. "They're not frozen in time. They're living buildings."

A pair of incandescent lanterns once hung in the steeple to commemorate the signals of Revere's warning, but two years ago they were replaced with compact fluorescents. They are only lit each Patriot's Day — a civic holiday in Massachusetts marking the Revolutionary War's start at Lexington and Concord — and special occasions such as the death of a president, or a World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox.

Pignone isn't ruling out the possibility that Old North Church might eventually replace the compact fluorescents in the steeple lanterns with LEDs. His foundation is reviewing the entire church property's capital needs, including restoration work and adding more efficient lighting in buildings such as a gift shop.

LEDs in the steeple "might be addressed in the master plan," he said.

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