BUSINESS: Beaming with Pride

Gay couple Mark Reed and Dante Walkup fulfill their decade-old dream of installing LED lights on Reunion Tower

Wiedamark.Reed.Walkup

GLOWING NEW SHOWROOM | Dante Walkup, left, and Mark Reed recently moved Wiedamark Lighting to a new showroom and warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. (Patrick Hoffman/Special to the Voice)

DANIEL VILLARREAL  |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

When Mark Reed and Dante Walkup became a serious couple in 2000, they agreed they wanted to have fun in their 50s. But to do that they’d want to leave their respective jobs as a furniture salesman and a psychologist and start their own business.

Having spent the last year installing LED lights around their Las Colinas home, the couple decided they’d use their sales and communications skills to start an LED lighting company — a relatively new business idea at the time.

They converted their three-car garage into a warehouse and turned their basement, bedroom and kitchen into workspaces for them and five other employees.

Since then, Wiedamark has grown into a $3.5 million dollar company with about 300 retailers internationally and a brand new showroom and warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. But from their very first year, Reed and Walkup knew they wanted to put their business on the map by updating one of Dallas’ most iconic buildings — they wanted to refit Reunion Tower with their LEDs.

Tower

HIGH LIGHTS OF THE JOB | A technician from Ropeworks installs one of the 259 new fixtures. (Frank Huster/Special to the Voice)

If you’ve ever been on Cedar Springs, chances are you’ve probably seen some of Wiedamark’s lights. The fiberglass chandelier hanging over the bar at Sue Ellen’s, the mood-lighting wall sconces in the Rose Room at S4, the colored lighting at the Legacy of Love Monument — that’s all Wiedamark.

Reed and Walkup don’t usually install the lights themselves. They order the fixtures from China and Taiwan, then resell them to retailers who install them for companies looking to add a splash of color to their venues.

After several years on Oak Lawn Avenue near Maple, Wiedamark recently relocated to Harry Hines. Their new digs are easy to ignore by day but lit up in turquoise, emerald and ruby at night. Inside, it seems more like an art gallery than a commercial space.

Over their reception desk hangs four large lime-green letters spelling “LOVE.” A wall-size LED screen in their conference room displays an unfurling rainbow, its bows opening up like the pages of a book. But the colorful hallway in the back contains the real wonders: sculpted walls that seem to breathe in the golden-to-violet light, dance floor tiles that change color with each step and a mirrored lounge with a glistening ceiling of twinkling LED stars.

Interiors, exteriors, landscapes, pools, bars, bathrooms — you name it, they can put lights in it.

They’ve provided resort lighting in Jamaica and highlights at the Maya Bar in New Zealand, just to name a few. A wealthy Saudi Arabian once wanted them to install high-end lights in his palace. Instead of traveling to his home country, they invited him to meet them during a trip to Vienna.

Reed and Walkup say that in their nine years of business they have never made a single cold call. As one of the first online shippers of LED equipment, the customers found them.

Their first year in, the Hyatt Hotel hired them to light its Christmas party, giving Reed and Walkup the perfect chance to share their Reunion Tower idea with Hyatt’s head of engineering, Brett Killingsworth. The idea instantly intrigued him.

In many ways LEDs were better than the tower’s older, 130-watt bulbs: LEDs use a fraction of the energy, stay cool to the touch and can last up to 10 times longer than old-fashioned bulbs. But unfortunately for Reed and Walkup, 2004 technology had not yet advanced far enough to make LED lights visible on the tower from miles away.

So immediately, Reed and Walkup’s team began working on an improved LED design that would take five years to complete.

To help make the light more visible from a greater range of view, they fitted a spherical dome onto a flat-surfaced LED, creating something resembling the Jetsons’ space car.

At 4 a.m. one day,  Walkup took the prototype and held it off the top of Reunion Tower while Reed checked whether he could see it clearly from four different locations several miles away. He could.

But the prototype had a major design flaw — it couldn’t keep out rainwater. A high-pressure water test left its circuit board drenched, something that would cause it to fail in a storm.

So over the next few years, they bolted the LED dome to a hexagonal metal base which increased the size and weight while preventing seepage. But even then, their design corroded when exposed to salty air conditions.

Frustrated with their failed attempts, Reed and Walkup turned to an engineer friend for help. He streamlined their design

Ball

SHINING DEBUT | The tower was fittingly awash in rainbow colors on New Year’s Eve.

into a lighter, less clunky model made entirely of non-corrosive stainless steel. And best of all, it kept out rainwater.
Sixteen weeks later, they had manufactured all the lights they needed.

But now that they had a workable design, they had an even bigger task ahead — installing 259 lights on the tower’s 118-foot geodesic sphere, all without endangering their workers or dropping the 20-pound fixtures onto someone 560 feet below.

Seattle’s Space Needle, Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam all need regular maintenance and inspection by certified professionals willing to work hundreds if not thousands of feet off the ground.

The group who does this kind of work is Ropeworks, a team of certified technicians from Reno, Nev., trained in rope access, tower climbing, rescue and fall protection. After seeing Ropeworks’ presentation, Reed thought they could best handle the high wind speeds and low temperatures atop Reunion Tower in the fall.

So from Oct. 30 through Nov. 21, from 5 a.m. till 6 p.m., seven days a week, four certified master electricians from Ropeworks rappelled from the top of the tower and hung along the dome’s 260 intersecting aluminum struts to disassemble the tower’s old fixtures and install Wiedamark’s new ones.

The Woodbine Development Co. (which owns the tower) hoped to keep the new lights secret until a surprise showing 15 minutes before New Year’s Day. But on Nov. 21 at 4:30 a.m., a Dallas photographer captured some footage of Wiedamark testing the lights.

The photographer then sent photo and video footage to WFAA-TV and the Dallas Observer.

By the next morning, everyone knew that for the first time in its 33-year history, the Reunion Tower had new lights.

“I was happy [the news] was out,” says Walkup. “We couldn’t talk about it in public, but our friends had known about the project for a long time. [Waiting for the unveiling] was like being pregnant for nine months, but then having the birth delayed to 10 months, then 11 months, then 12 months. And all this time you’re just waiting for it to finally happen.”

On New Year’s Eve, Reed and Walkup stood on the ninth floor balcony of their friend’s downtown condominium, the unlit dome of Reunion Tower clearly in view. Then the dome lit up at a quarter till midnight, a digital countdown on the ball ticking off each second.

Then, at midnight sharp, the Reunion Tower dome sparkled in a ecstatic wash of reds, greens, blues, and purples while Reed, Walkup and the rest of Dallas rang in the New Year.

After a 10-minute light show, the numbers 2012 encircled the dome in bright yellow until 5 o’ clock that morning.

Mentioning the new Omni Hotel and the other colorful LED-lit projects that have joined the Dallas landscape in the last few years, Walkup notes: “Dallas is a colorful city. We want to make it an exciting place to live and colored light helps people recognize that. Light is modern and fresh. It conveys youth. Dallas, a city of young ideas.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas