From the Grand Rapids Business Journal:
Dad, are we home yet?” Whined two weary kids returning from vacation. “Can you see the Weather Ball yet?” He asked. “Nooooooo!” Came the whines again. “Well then, we’re not home yet!”
Home is Grand Rapids between 1967 through 1987, and the Weather Ball was a 64-ton, 125-foot-tall steel structure with a neon ball on top that forecasted the weather 24 hours a day. It sat atop the former Michigan National Bank building at 77 Monroe Center, and they say you could see it for 10 miles around. What started as a Michigan National project went on to become the Grand Rapids landmark, along with the fish ladder and Alexander Calder sculpture. Ask any Grand Rapids native over the age of 25 and they will recite the short rhyme that accompanied the huge, spherical structure:
Weather ball red, warmer weather ahead
Weather ball blue, colder weather in view
Weather ball green, no change foreseen
Colors blinking bright, rain or snow in sight.
Tacky? Maybe, Accurate? Probably not, Nostalgic? You betcha!
In today’s world of 24-hour weather stations, Doppler Radar, NexRad and storm teams who track and forecast our weather continuously, it seems a little silly that for two decades Grand Rapidians used to look to the sky over downtown to decide whether to bring an umbrella or put on a warmer coat. This was Grand Rapids before the Van Andel Arena, the BOB, and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. And in 1967 it was futuristic! During its 20-year reign, the Weather Ball survived countless storms and two nearby tornadoes. Records show only one serious instance when one of the 12-by-20 foot identification letters blew off and fell to the street below. Folklore abounds about the structure, teenage boys on a dare to climb and unplug the glowing structure, and janitors who would find clothes on the rooftop in the morning.
The decision to remove the Weather Ball was that of Michigan National Bank, when reports showed that the Weather Ball was damaging the building’s core structure, cracking walls and allowing moisture seepage to further damage the building. The decision, although difficult, came fast and the Weather Ball was doomed to come down. There were stirrings of opposition to save the Weather Ball, but in the end no one saved it. The neon tubes were removed by Ian McCartney, from NeonAmericana, and the steel ended up in a scrap yard in Kalamazoo. Not a very nice way to treat a community landmark.
Fast forward to 2003, on May 23 the West Michigan landmark returned to the skyline and began lighting up the sky once again.
WZZM 13 purchased the steel ball scrap from a Kalamazoo scrap yard and spent the next four years refurbishing and reconstructing the 16-foot neon covered stainless steel spherical object to better than original state. Thanks to WZZM 13, that nostalgic presence is back in our lives, the actual Weather Ball. Cheers!
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