Architect of Lights

The inspiration came from one man, but it takes an entire neighborhood to create this sparkling holiday maze.
Nancy Staab

It all began in 1994. Eschewing traditional holiday trappings such as red-and-green lights or cutesy reindeer on the lawn, architect Bob Gould of Kansas City, Missouri, haphazardly strung strands of white bulbs through the trees of his yard. The results were absolutely mesmerizing. Bob says that the lights' zigzag pattern has been compared to "spiders' webs, angels' wings, or ships' masts lit up at night," especially when reflected in the ornamental pond in front of Bob and wife Karen's house.

Bringing People Together
At first neighbors were a bit skeptical of Bob's unconventional display of holiday spirit. However, bit by bit, they were clamoring to get into the act. It soon became a neighborhood tradition on this quiet street called Ensley Lane. Gradually the lights grew from one house to several, covering the street and finally several blocks.

Bob prefers to call his handiwork "light sculpture. The lights create an ethereal atmosphere. The tunnels and peaks of lights envelop you," he says. "They change the scale of the neighborhood and become a surprising sculptural object."

Bob holds tutorials each year to teach families how to fasten the lights to the trees with a baseball and twine. Clever residents have even come up with their own variations, using golf balls or an arborist's slingshot.

A New Holiday Tradition
The lights go up before Thanksgiving and remain intact through New Year's Day. Every year the caravan of cars makes the pilgrimage through this illuminated canopy.

Though he is precise in his profession, Bob's method of stringing lights is less than scientific. "It's all guesswork," he says. "Our philosophy is what's done is right. A neighbor will throw up a strand and say 'What do you think?' and I will reply 'Well, it's up there; I like it!' " The real keys are to keep the string taut and try to create crisscross patterns.

Bob and Karen host a neighborhood holiday party each year with hot cider and treats to kick off the season. "It's really a group effort and has allowed us to get to know everyone on our block," says Karen.

Last year, Bob was given a necklace of battery-powered, blinking lights. As the creator of this luminous wonderland, he was dubbed the "Master of Lights."

BOB'S LIGHTING TECHNIQUE
Materials: 1 baseball, 1 eye hook (screwed tightly into the baseball), several spools of cotton twine, several (10, 20, or more) 200-light strings and an equal number of stakes

Instructions
Step 1: Tie one end of a long string of twine (at least 200 feet) to the eye hook of the baseball.

Step 2: Holding the loose end of the twine, throw the ball high and long--aiming for the top of a tree. When the ball drops down, the twine should be draped over the tree.

Step 3: Tie the nonbaseball end to the center of a long string of lights, and then use the baseball to pull up the lights slowly, like a pulley. This will raise the lights up and over the top of the tree.

Step 4: Pull the string of lights out diagonally until it is straight and taut, and cut off the baseball. Stake the lights into the ground.

Step 5: Repeat these steps until your yard is draped in lights.


"Architect of Lights" is from the December 2002 issue of Southern Living.