The Complete History of Pavement Lights | How Vault Lights Became Popular

What Is a Sidewalk Light?  

Vault lights, also known as pavement lights, are essentially skylights for below ground. Varying shapes and colors of glass prisms are laid into pavement to stream sunlight down into subterranean spaces. Some of the glass prisms can be shaped to bend light in the lower levels. Glass sidewalk vault lights were an ingenious idea, because they created a source of light for basements that could last all day. At night, the light from the basements below then illuminated through the prisms, creating a glowing sidewalk. 

Most Victorian cast iron pavements lights are approximately a century old. They were typically found in city centers or dense, high-rent areas where space was valuable. Renters valued glass sidewalk vault lights because they saved on the cost of artificial light at the time. Tenants could also save money on ventilation costs by not using gas lighting. 

When Were Glass Sidewalk Vault Lights Used?

Vaulted sidewalk lights were most notably used in 1910 in the passenger concourse of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The ceiling of the station was made of massive arched glass canopies and the floor had hundreds of pavement lights. Sunlight from the glass canopies would cascade down into the hundreds of glass sidewalk vault lights and illuminate the lower levels of the station. 

In 1862, Sacramento California was facing massive flooding issues. To combat the flooding damage, some buildings in Sacramento were raised up to 14 feet. In some places, raising the buildings was not possible. Instead, the city built over the first floors. Vault lights over the forgotten buildings show abandoned stores glowing in purple light from the pavement lights. 


Where Were Vault Lights First Used?

Pavement lights were first seen in ships and acted as deck lights. Back before cruise ships and ocean liners, merchants needed a way to illuminate their ships. Kerosene lamps and candles were sometimes used, but they posed more of a threat to the wooden ships and filled interior rooms with smoke. Instead, pavement lights were used to light the interior of the ship.

While vault lights slowly became more circular on ships over time, they looked like slotted lights when they were first used that mimicked the registers inside your home. This design was meant to direct the sunlight both up and down. Sailors in the interior of the ship had their rooms illuminated. These slotted pavement lights also played an important part in the safety of the ship. If a fire were ever to break out inside the ship, sailors on the top would be able to see the fiery glow coming from the slotted vault lights. 

inside space using vault lights

Where Can Pavement Lights Be Found Today? 

While the necessity for a vaulted sidewalk is mostly nonexistent now, many places have restored original Victorian cast iron pavements lights. In some areas, new vaulted lights are being appreciated and installed again. For example, you may not think your home needs vault lights anymore, but they can make a beautiful addition to showcase a room or floor below. You can find pavement lights in the following areas


  • Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Astoria, Oregon
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • London, England
  • New York City, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • San Diego, California
  • Tijuana, Mexico
  • Vancouver, British Columbia 


While it’s difficult to repair older pavement lights, there are cities and groups that try to restore the vault lights or save them for future projects. If a vault light can’t be saved, it can be filled in with rocks or concrete or paved over entirely. Unfortunately, if an old pavement light begins to deteriorate and becomes a tripping hazard, it must be repaired or removed. 


Lighting Up the Streets close up picture of cast iron vault lights

It’s not very common to see pavement lights in Northeast Ohio, but now the next time you do, you’ll know exactly what you’re walking over and where they originated. Vault lights in modern applications are making a return. If you’re interested in having Victorian cast iron pavement lights for your home or business, contact a vault light manufacturer today!