Meet the man crazy enough to fix iconic light atop Penobscot in downtown Detroit

Todd Farnum, owner of Green Light Detroit, is replacing the neon lights inside the red orb atop the Penobscot building in Detroit.
Todd Farnum, owner of Green Light Detroit, is replacing the neon lights inside the red orb atop the Penobscot Building in Detroit. Photos by Steve Neavling.

Finding someone able to fix the iconic red orb atop the towering Penobscot Building was one thing.

Finding someone crazy enough to do it was another.

Enter Todd Farnum, a 47-year-old Warren resident and lighting expert with fond memories of the building and just enough crazy, er, courage for the job. Farnum, with the help of his employees, offered to climb the 100-foot tower atop the 47-story building at no cost, in freezing temperatures, to replace the custom-made neon tubes that have blinked out.

Todd Farnum climbs the icy, narrow steps of the tower on Wednesday.
Todd Farnum climbs the icy, narrow steps of the tower on Wednesday.

It was a deal.

“This is something special,” Farnum, who owns Green Light Detroit, told me before suiting up. “I have family that worked in the building.”

Green Light Detroit will be the first new company to work on the ball in at least three decades, said Kim Farmer, vice president of operations and leasing at Triple Properties.

“They were the first group that wasn’t afraid and that was knowledgeable,” Farmer said.

On Wednesday, Farnum donned gloves and safety gear and began to ascend the narrow ladder. But after making it a third of the way up, Farnum was forced to retreat because the ladder was coated in ice and frost.

Farnum said he will replace the lights, which he expects to take about two hours, as soon as the ice melts.

“I’m not holding off until spring,” he said after climbing down. “I want to get this done”

When the 567-foot building opened in 1928, it was the fourth tallest building in the U.S., according to HistoricDetroit.org. The red orb was used as an aviation beacon so low-flying planes didn’t crash into the building,

A view from the roof of the 47-story Penobscot in downtown Detroit.  All photos by Steve Neavling.
A view from the roof of the 47-story Penobscot in downtown Detroit. All photos by Steve Neavling.

The Penobscot is now the third tallest building in Detroit, and its red orb is just decorative.

Triple Properties also plans to re-open the observation deck that has been closed for decades.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Mark Oshinsky

    I met Todd in the late 80’s and for as long as I can remember he has always worked with electrical lighting. I hope that when he restores the neon light on top of the Penobscot building,Triple Properties will do something good for him in return. He is taking a lot of risk going up there considering he has a school aged daughter.He is a very generous guy, I remember some 25-years ago when Todd asked me to help him assemble some neon light fixtures for a video store and he payed me a large sum of money for just holding lights in place while he did all the electrical work. I hope someday he reaps the rewards for his acts of kindness. God bless him and his family and may his magnanimity go unforgotten.

  • ReRa

    Huh. I didn’t know the light was out. When did it go out?

  • RichardandJan Bawol

    I’m keeping my ass on the ground. I just saw one the other day and it’s something like 1800 ft high and the guy was climbing it to change a bulb. I’m afraid I’d be changing my pants! LOL

  • Aiede

    My first thought was, “No way, Triple Properties are actually paying money for improvements?” then I got to the “this guy is doing it at no cost” thing.

  • Dan Austin

    Dammit. You used the same lede I planned on using. haha.

    • muckraker_steve

      Great minds think alike.