Historical Schmorical Star Snatchers versus the Urban Dark Skies Ordinance


The flock of migratory birds circled, dazed, drunken within the haze of the urban lights. One-by-one they each plummeted to their demise, as they became an unknowing Icarus flying into the sun; however, this sun is an urban city filled with light pollution.

Bright city lights in urban environments disrupt the breeding and feeding habits of insects such as moths; however, the New York City Audubon Society claims that city lights also disorientate the migratory pattern of birds and impairs their navigational cues. After promoting skyscrapers to reduce or turn off their lights after midnight, death rates of birds has decreased by 83%.

Light pollution is more than a mere nuisance within an urban environment. While street lighting has created safer communities, light pollution has resulted in wasted light (and energy) that shines upwards into the atmosphere. Moreover, we are conceivably losing forever our last culturally universal vista – the stars.

Urban environments have become Star Snatchers, taking away our view of the Milky Way Galaxy, and replacing it with an orange haze. Unfortunately, some local governments dismiss the harmfulness of light pollution, while others are instituting the Star Snatching themselves.

The City of Bozeman implements the Dark Skies Ordinance. Whereas according to City Regulations

Section 8.23.150. – Lighting.
All outdoor lighting fixtures shall be shielded in such a manner that no light is emitted above a horizontal plane passing through the lowest point of the light emitting element, so that direct light emitted above the horizontal plane is eliminated.

Yet, the City Star Snatchers put in the following caveat in paragraph 7.

7. Miscellaneous site lighting specifications. All lighting shall comply with the following requirements, except as otherwise allowed in subsections E and G of this section.

G. Historic lighting. The city may relax lighting standards and requirements, with the exception of illumination levels, for the provision of historic lighting in the neighborhood conservation overlay district. Historic lights shall be proposed as an integrated part of an overall development plan.
The historic preservation planner shall review and approve the proposed lighting for historic appropriateness.

Yes, lighting standards may be relaxed. Or in layman’s terms, if a previous sign is deemed “historical” it can be reconstructed without accordance to any current requirement.

I think the G, in conditional subsection G, stands for “Guise of Historic Preservation,” because Bozeman recently allowed the largest adversary against their Dark Skies Ordinance by allowing the relighting of the HOTEL BAXTER sign.

The Hotel Baxter is a landmark and perhaps the most iconic building within Bozeman.

Constructed in 1929 as a premiere hotel, it still stands as the tallest building in Downtown Bozeman. But perhaps more iconic than the hotel itself are the two objects affixed to the rooftop. The “flashy blue light” is the embodiment of Bozeman itself. A beacon that signifies our passion for the “cold smoke” that awaits upon every passing storm at the nearby Bridger Bowl ski area. The powerful blue strobe light blinks every time Bridger Bowl receives 2” of fresh snow, and remains flashing for 24 hours – a nostalgic remnant of the days when locals had to call the phone line to get updated ski reports.

The other object is the imposing 32’ high 45’ wide signage assembled upon scaffolding declaring “HOTEL BAXTER.” The original sign had red neon electric lighting that was designed by August H. Lake to be seen as far away as Butte (70 miles). An article in the Bozeman Chronicle when the hotel opened stated, “It is not claimed that the letters can be distinguished for such great distances, but the reflection of the electric light in the sky from the sign will be intense enough to be easily located and thereby serve as a beacon for travelers as far away as the Butte hill in the west. One will also be able to see the glow in the sky from all highways entering Bozeman for great distances.”

This signage and many others erected within Bozeman during this time period were not intended to provide for a walkable downtown, they were roadside attractions for the automobile, each bigger and brighter than the next – a vestige of a bygone era.

Certainly, the most atrocious of all these signs was indeed the HOTEL BAXTER.

Bozeman has since enacted the Dark Skies Ordinance to prevent not only glaring streetlights to shine upwards creating light pollution, but specifically to prohibit signage – which provides no beneficial illumination to pedestrians or cars – from unnecessarily causing extended pollution by simply declaring “Open.”

Ironically, the Hotel Baxter is not even a functioning hotel. It is beloved by locals and is taller than current height restrictions permit – but it now functions as a 7-story building with condominiums.

I often wonder how many tourists arriving in Bozeman late at night, attempting to find a place to stay, stumble upon the giant HOTEL BAXTER sign – only to be informed that they may drink beer or eat curry fries – but the building with the giant neon sign advertising HOTEL, does not accommodate any sleepy tourists.

The HOTEL BAXTER sign has been unlit for an estimated 4 decades. However, instead of simply repainting the deteriorating sign, new neon lighting was installed and relit under the shroud of historic preservation. Remarkably, no exterior lights are allowed to cause light pollution in Bozeman, but the one sign that was intended to cause light pollution for 70 miles has been carefully restored – to do just that.

Historical Preservationists often have an idealized sense of history. They prefer to restore buildings not exactly as they were once utilized or constructed, but reinterpreted to fit within their nostalgic vision.

For instance, the tall windows on the second floor of one downtown building (formerly a brothel) prominently displayed girls in the windows – now it displays mannequins. We like the idea of a seedy past, but we don’t actually want to encourage the previous use.

Furthermore, we don’t put archaic building materials, such as lead paint and asbestos, back on historical buildings decades after their abandonment – because these materials (while historic) are detrimental to our health; whereas, light pollution is only detrimental to our environment.

Light pollution is often regarded as a mere nuisance. Thus, it was troubling when Joseph Shaw, director of Montana State University’s Optical Technology Center, claimed that the bright red light from the new HOTEL BAXTER sign affects sensors that “depend on being able to see into the night sky without a lot of extraneous light pollution.”

With an emerging influx of optical technology companies within Bozeman, a stronger effort should be enforced to embrace both quality of life and economic progress. 

People have ridiculed this professor for testing lasers within an urban environment.|1| However, urban environments should seek to provide better ecosystem for all creatures – not simply asphalt, cars, and office buildings? If cities can become environmentally friendly, they will no longer be the harbinger of “it’s an urban environment” but actually something people will embrace.

Perhaps the HOTEL BAXTER sign could compromise with MSU and become the epitome of the adjacent “blue flashy light” – signifying events occurring elsewhere. When the sign goes dim for 2 hours, it would convey “scientific research has commenced.”


The giant neon sign as roadside attraction is an adage of an ancient age before the city was established. Can historical preservationists want a better future environment, and not solely try to save outdated ideologies of the past? Culture progresses and becomes less resolute and more compassionate – more accepting of gays, racial diversity, and economic diversity. Can preservationists not do the same?

Bozeman should strive to become a tourist destination, not only for it’s mountains and rivers, but for being one of the last urban environments that can still view the Milky Way Galaxy. For only then can Bozeman truly live up to its self-imposed moniker of The Most Livable Place, and not fall down the path of too many other cities and be dubbed The Most Illuminated Place.

Overall, the trouble with the HOTEL BAXTER sign is that it is (actually) attractive – and photographs nicely. With each bright roadside signage slowly vanishing from Bozeman’s urban fabric, the Hotel Baxter sign remains the lone beacon that draws one towards it. Disturbingly, we humans have metamorphosed into the moths – our breeding and eating habits disrupted – while we astonishingly gaze upon a 45’ neon glowing sign.




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1 Others have claimed that the Baxter sign should take precedence over MSU, since it’s old, but MSU has been around for a bit as well, since 1889. And it once was located outside of Town – away from any lights. If MSU relocates optic sensing to out of town, it’s only a matter of time before sprawl places MSU optic sensing within town again.

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