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Plummer Building regains Christmas lights status

Once, Rochester residents did not have to go far or look hard to find the perfect Christmas tree. Every December, from 1950 to 1956, the night skyline of Rochester featured a tree formed of lights shining from the windows of Mayo Clinic's Plummer...

Plummer Building lights 02500BR.jpg
Mayo Clinic's Plummer Building, as it appeared lighted for the holidays in the 1950s.
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Once, Rochester residents did not have to go far or look hard to find the perfect Christmas tree.

Every December, from 1950 to 1956, the night skyline of Rochester featured a tree formed of lights shining from the windows of Mayo Clinic's Plummer Building, facing Second Street Southwest.

"The tree was always perfectly shaped," remembers Maxine Kalmes, who, with her husband, Curtis, would take their children to see the tree in the '50s. "Everyone would go downtown to see it," she said.

The tradition has returned this year, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving. Part of Mayo's sesquicentennial celebration, the project is one of many honoring the clinic's tradition of contribution to the city, said Bruce Rohde, of Mayo Clinic Facilities Project Services.

The idea to bring back the tree was one of thousands of suggestions considered by Mayo Clinic for inclusion in the vast celebration that began in October and will continue through 2014.

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Longtime Mayo electrician Fred Reed planned the 60-window display in the 1950s.

"It has to have been a big job," said Curtis Kalmes, a Mayo retiree who worked with Reed. "It was definitely quite a novel idea."

In the 1950s, Reed and his staff of night watchmen, as Mayo security personnel were known then, manually turned on and off the lights that formed the tree.

In planning the 2013 tree, Rohde studied Mayo documents and photographs from the Clinic's archives. He also walked the streets to Rochester to determine differences in the skyline from the 1950s to today.

"There was a hotel at South Franklin and now we have the Hilton and the Guggenheim Buildings" he said. But despite those taller buildings blocking the view, he said, there will still be excellent views from other angles.

A description of Reed's creation in the Mayo archives reads, "Formed by 60 lighted windows, the tree stands 128 feet high and 131 feet wide. On top of the tree, which extends from the fourth floor through the twelfth, is a five-pointed star of plywood with a light on each point and one in the center."

For 2013, Rohde said, there are more than 80 Mayo staff members who will be giving up a clear view from their office windows for the tree. In each designated window, there will be stands of lights housed in a frame that essentially blocks the view.

Unlike in the 1950s, this year's tree uses cost-effective LED lights on a timing system.

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It was a series of Plummer Building remodeling projects, and not energy-cost concerns, that ended the tradition after 1956, as a Mayo publication at the time noted: "Remodeling on many floors has so changed the pattern of lights that it just isn't possible anymore."

A later attempt to dress up Rochester's skyline for the holidays, in the 1960s and early 1970s, was curtailed by cost concerns.

This year's display starts a new tradition. It will be lit from 4:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. nightly through Dec. 31.

Anne Murphy is a Rochester freelance writer.

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