July 31, 2017 // Does San Jose need a new light tower, an iconic structure to remind the world of what we had between 1881 and 1915? You might be forgiven for a skeptical response. Several previous attempts to build a tower have failed. But the answer is a clear and loud yes.
I raise the question because a trio of well-connected business people is beginning a serious fundraising effort to produce a film about the topic and build a light tower in downtown San Jose, possibly at the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, the city’s old heart.
Unlike previous efforts, it won’t be a replica of the old tower, which finally collapsed after a windstorm more than a century ago. Instead, the organizers, led by promoter and entrepreneur Steve Borkenhagen, want to build something wholly new.
“We visualize this thing as being an iconic structure that will take people’s breath away,’’ Borkenhagen told me. “The original tower is simply a thread to today. The premise of our project is that in San Jose and Silicon Valley, there is no iconic structure.’’
Does the Apple spaceship count? Borkenhagen points out that the Cupertino complex is not public. And he is not willing to extend his definition of the valley as far as San Francisco. Nope. What he wants is something bold much closer to home.
Borkenhagen and his two partners in the effort, filmmaker Tom Wohlmut and builder Jon Ball, are not thinking small. When I asked him to define his idea of “iconic,’’ he mentioned the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, even the leaning tower of Pisa.
That takes us back to history: At the urging of San Jose Mercury editor J.J. Owen, the good people of San Jose raised $4,000 — about $100,000 in today’s money — to erect the first light electric light tower at Market and Santa Clara streets in 1881. It quickly put San Jose on the map.
Wohlmut is producing a feature film entitled “The Light Between Two Towers,’’ drawing connections between San Jose’s tower and the Eiffel Tower, which was built eight years later. That’s a story for another day. Suffice to say that it involves a Frenchman who lived in San Jose, Pedro de Saisset.
Seven decades after the old tower collapsed, Mayor Tom McEnery suggested bringing back the 237-foot high structure. But the idea was torpedoed by a cutting Mercury News cartoon that showed McEnery’s head inside a light bulb, with the electrified mayor looking idiotic.
The tower nonetheless remains an enduring image. San Jose’s History Park has a 115-foot replica, half the size of the original. And last Christmas, the Rotary Club of San Jose erected a 40-foot model of the light tower in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, with LED lights. In some ways, it was a foretaste of what could be done.
Borkenhagen says the organizers of the new effort intend to do their fundraising in two parts: The first fundraiser, to be held between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 8 at Cafe Stritch, is intended to raise money to complete Wohlmut’s film. (For more information, see www.sanjoselighttower.org).
Then they intend to have an international design competition for a new light tower expected to reach as high as 250 feet. Borkenhagen says he has talked with city officials, who have suggested a process to determine the best location. The preference of the organizers, however, is clearly for Plaza de Cesar Chavez.
And the cost? “We won’t have a budget until we have a design,’’ says Borkenhagen, who adds that the tower will be funded privately and is expected to cost in the millions. “We intend to go to the obvious people who have wealth. But we expect to have thousands of people donating small amounts also.’’
There are dozens of questions left: The how, the what, the when, the how much. The why, however, is evident. San Jose could use something iconic, something above our workaday image. And one question is easily answered: Is this worth trying? Yes, yes and yes.