Tech Tower

  • LOCATION Atlanta, Georgia
  • CLIENT Georgia Institute of Technology
  • CHALLENGE Historic building surrounded by old growth hardwoods.

The Georgia Institute of Technology was founded as the Georgia School of Technology in 1888. It was originally conceived as a trade school teaching mechanical engineering in the reconstruction south. Only one of the two original buildings remains. It is a Romanesque-Revival, Victorian brick building and tower that once housed classrooms and lecture halls. It is now officially named the Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Administration Building and is the administrative hub of the Georgia Tech campus.

The class of 1922 first installed letters reading TECH on the four faces of the tower in 1918. These first letters, intended “to light the spirit of Tech to the four points of the compass” were, in fact, not lighted. They were made of wood and painted in the school’s white and gold. This is when the building took on its present nickname: Tech Tower. The letters were first lighted in the 1930s, when light bulbs were added to their faces. In 1949 the letters were upgraded again. This time fabricated steel channel letters with exposed neon replaced the original wooden signs. According to the maintenance workers I spoke to, these letters were made on campus by the Tech maintenance department. Specifically, they were alleged to have been made by the grandfather of a current maintenance employee. The grandson was not available for comment.

Whatever their origins, these are the letters that we replaced in the spring of 2018. Technically, some of them have been replaced before. Stealing the T’s off of signs is something of an illicit tradition on the Tech campus, and doughty aspiring engineers have succeeded in scaling the seven-story tower and making off with the four-foot-tall letters on several occasions. In most cases, the stolen T’s have been returned or recovered, but other times replacements have been required.

There was much discussion about what technology should be used to illuminate the new letters. We built full-size mock-ups in both neon and LED versions. Color changing LEDs were discussed as a way to support or commemorate special events and causes, lighting the signs in pink for breast cancer awareness month, for example. In the end, Georgia Tech decided to stick to tradition and build the new signs with white and gold neon, just as they have been for almost seventy years. The one nod to modern lighting technology was to replace the floodlights atop the letters. Tech Tower’s roof is now lighted by LEDs.

The 1949 installation was somewhat haphazard, with unique mounting hole placements on each elevation. We designed our replacement frames so that we could rapidly position mounting hardware on-site, after removing and measuring the signs for each face of the tower. This allowed us to use the existing mounting holes, rather than drill new penetrations in this historic building. The installation was made further challenging by the fact that Tech Tower is surrounded by old hardwoods. Positioning cranes around the building, so that there was a path through the branches to raise and position the signs, took some creative planning. In some cases, the crane was operated blind, with its movements directed by a remote observer via walkie-talkie. Despite these challenges, we were able to complete our installation ahead of schedule, without damaging either trees or building.

Since I began discussing our involvement in the letter replacement project, my Tech alumni friends have been asking about the fate of the old letters. The plan is to give the letters to the Alumni Association. They will likely be sold as part of a fund-raising initiative. It may now be possible to achieve the legendary goal of acquiring a T off of Tech Tower, without risking life, limb, expulsion or criminal prosecution. But act fast, supplies are extremely limited.