Neon Past and Present
From the importance of restoring vintage neon signs that landmark a neighborhood, to neon’s natural fit when emblazoning a historic city building, to the pure power and light neon still generates for large outdoor signs, these three projects prove that neon is going – and glowing – strong.
THE KNIGHT'S TALE
King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table surely had it easier in their search for the Holy Grail than the knight-on-a-horse neon sign for the Salt Lake City Costume Co. has had carrying out its own mission. Installed in the mid 1950’s, the sign survived fire and flood in the ’60s, enjoyed a restoration in the ’80s, suffered subsequent deterioration and decay, and finally, experienced recent rescue from oblivion.
Vince Coley, owner of Rainbow Neon Sign Co. (Salt Lake City), is the son of Lloyd S. Coley, who originally designed and fabricated the sign. Vince related that the fire at the costume company in the ’60s actually resulted in water damage, because an exterior stone wall and several fire hoses had held back the flames. Lloyd subsequently serviced the sign, where it continued to light the store entrance for two more decades, a mere “three-wood away” from Lloyd’s Rainbow Neon shop at the time, according to Vince.
“We [then] removed the sign in the early ’80s and freshened up the paint and repaired what was not working,” Coley said. “We did this in the shop I am in now. My dad, a coworker, Don Fitches, and I repainted the entire sign, top to bottom.”
Flash-forward what, almost four more decades to the near present, and even the careful restoration from the ’80s had aged out. “I’d been watching [the sign] sag for the last 10 years,” Coley said. “A good portion of the glass was broken, so nothing really lighted.” Meanwhile, not only had the costume company closed, but Salt Lake City also was enforcing a policy for non-conforming signs, and “if this sign touched the ground, it was gone for good,” Coley said. As a result, many restorations were done on-site at the peril of both workers and the public. On something of a quest himself, Coley fought for more than two years to convince city officials to allow removal (for repair) of historic signs like this one in Salt Lake City’s Sugarhouse neighborhood.
One reason the sign held up for 65 years is that the faces and back were notched 1 in. all the way around and folded over the side walls, Coley said. “This makes a very strong structure for the thin areas of the sign like the legs and lance.”
Fitches (still with Rainbow after 42 years), Danny French (neon work) and Sergio Camacho (wiring and installation) contributed to this second refurbishment that took more than a year, during which making the neon patterns was Coley’s principal challenge. “Many of the neon tubes were broken and the intricate parts all had to be fitted and hand-traced in reverse,” he said. The team used Voltarc whites, green and blue with conventional red glass and France transformers as new components for the restoration. “With the install, I made a full-size template to go on the new canopy. Seeing the changed structure and shape, I then adjusted the rear support brackets to fit,” Coley said.
In addition, Coley credits the new owner of the costume company building – who originally got in touch about the sign four years earlier. “He became the knight in shining armor with this project,” Coley said. “People young and old want these iconic signs saved!”
SIGNS OF DESTINY
Another father and son feature in the plot of this story, as does more history. The Mabel Exchange is a combination of apartments and retail under ongoing construction in Chicago’s north side, but for more than 50 years, the three-story building had served as cosmetics giant Maybelline’s headquarters. “Right here on this corner at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Thomas Lyle Williams grew a burgeoning cosmetics empire that made the glitz and glamor of Hollywood accessible to everyday women,” reads the Mabel Exchange website.
“That building, for Chicagoans, is a really famous building,” said Mike Shin, project manager for NeonArt Sign Co. (Chicago). “It’s on the way to Lake Shore Drive, right where it begins on the north side. When this went up for bid, I really wanted to put my work out there.” And that he did, beating out a number of other sign companies in the process. Shin feels confident that not only NeonArt’s history and portfolio contributed to the win, but also his own sense of, well, project management. “I’m a good salesman because I’m passionate about this business,” Shin said. The client’s building representative noted to Shin that most of the other sign companies took a week or more to come out there. “If I get a call, even if I’m busy, I try to go out to the place that day or the next day,” he said.
NeonArt is Shin’s father’s business; Hochul Shin started in 1988 and according to his son, as one of the very few shops producing real neon, NeonArt does a lot of this work for other sign companies in Chicago. Mike joined NeonArt about three years ago. “I just [now] turned 40 and [back then] I was in the restaurant-nightlife scene,” Shin recalled, but he had recently started a family and wisely decided to change career paths. “More or less, the sign business saved my life,” he said. Now, so his 67-year-old father can take it easy, Shin wants to take over and implement his more modern style of networking, marketing, communication and customer service.
Shin feels The Mabel Exchange chose neon over LED for an obvious reason. “I think for wall signs, LED flex neon is fine, or as accents to signage,” he said. “But in terms of an open-face LED neon sign, I can see the difference. At this point, in that setting, neon is still a superior product.”
Having won the job, the main obstacle became educating the client. “Technology isn’t there to do what the client had in their rendering, which shows neon tubes just installed, and at that scale and at that height, I told them it wasn’t feasible,” Shin said. “We translated what they wanted to what was feasible and then what was feasible to what would fit their budget.” This involved not lighting the first and third words in the actual sign – they are lit in the rendering – making them non-illuminated channel letters instead.
With the sign’s neon portion, NeonArt used a 15,000v 30mA outdoor transformer from Transco. “For glass, we use Votarc and EGL, and on this project we used Voltarc,” Shin said. The sign is lit by neon gas in 12 mm clear tubes with PK housing for the electrodes, due to the outdoor location.
“I’ve gotten a lot more high-profile projects after this,” Shin said. “This was our first significant one since I started, and it really brought value to our business and my confidence.”
"I believe neon absolutely sold this client,” said Joe Gibson, owner of Ramsay Signs (Portland, OR), referencing his company’s recent work for the Portland Expo Center. The initial Expo Center RFQ had specified backlit cabinets, though white neon on the letters later became an option, but neither impressed the client, Gibson said. “We felt that we had a neon design that would excite them and presented this option along with our bid.” With the pricing on the requested signage coming in very close to the other bidders, the client chose Ramsay Signs and immediately requested a price for their neon alternative.
An LED version of this sign would not have the same impact as neon, Gibson said, and the colors would not have been achievable without using vinyl films that wouldn’t last as long as neon components. Choosing those colors presented a bit of a challenge in a way that most in the industry would understand. “As with most public/city- owned projects, there are many individuals involved in decisions,” Gibson said. “I believe we looked at every neon color available about a dozen times each, both off and on.”
A vertical version of the Expo Center’s logo also tasked Ramsay’s creativity, both to make it work with neon as well as to fit the branding. Another roadblock – surprise, surprise – was with the city permits, Gibson said. The property sits in an overlay zone that requires approval by a city design review committee for all signs over 32 sq. ft.
Ramsay’s team produced all designs and proofs with either CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator, and they run Gerber Omega in the fabrication shop. For the glass, they chose EGL 6500 white, emerald green, tangerine and seacreast, as well as France transformers. All neon on this project used coated or tinted glass with an argon/neon gas mixture.
Installation required equipment with a reach beyond Ramsay’s fleet. The highest of the logo sections necessitated a 120-ft. crane for hoisting the sign into position and another 120-ft. boom to elevate the installation personnel into position for attachment. “Because this tower was not built for large sign elements like these, there were engineering challenges as well to get a proper attachment that was structurally sufficient,” Gibson said.
Clearly, the Expo Center found the neon sign more than sufficient. “After the tower signage was installed, the client added the signage for the adjacent building to their budget for the following year,” Gibson said. And that wasn’t the only bonus from this project. “In experimenting with colors [for the first sign] we discovered a great-looking green by removing the powder from a coated glass. The client did not choose this color in the end, but we have used it since then as the closest match to the green-yellow fluorescent color used by other clients.”
Historic signs or new colors, neon can still light the way.