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Metal Fabrication

A Sign Resurrection

Thomas Sign Creations restores a Greenville, SC landmark sign.

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Many urban leaders in the United States have developed an out-with-the-old attitude and believe historic, downtown buildings have outlived their usefulness. So, out comes the wrecking ball or the booming, crowd-pleasing implosion.

Fortunately, destruction wasn’t on the minds of the owners of Greenville, SC’s Westin Poinsett Hotel; rather, reconstruction was their goal, much to the delight of Greenville’s city fathers, who believe history should be preserved.

The hotel, built in 1925, sheltered weary travelers for decades. But, this story focuses on the hotel’s neon sign, which was erected in the 1950s and remained functional until the late ’60s. At some point during the ensuing 40-plus years, two of its three sides mysteriously disappeared. Yet, both the mayor and the new owners wanted to save it. However, doing so required major, reconstructive surgery.

Enter the signmaker

Our shop got the job in a roundabout way. I received a call from my ADA-sign distributor, who’d been contacted by a NYC-based client, who knew the hotel’s new owners, and asked if the distributor was interested in the job. The distributor said it exceeded his capabilities, but he knew of a company in Charlotte (us) that could handle it.

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They sent me project photos and contact information for the hotel’s general manager, Fabian Unterzaucher. I contacted him on a Friday, and met with him and his head engineer, Dave Fish, on the following Monday to discuss how we could handle the job.

Thomas Sign Creations typically undertakes signage creation, not “re-creation.” My company’s capabilities include consultation, design, fabrication, installation and service, or all of the above for buildings that require turnkey signage. But, the sign needed re-creation. To accomplish the job, I enlisted Dale Michael, who’s owner and president of Stanley, NC-based SignTech of the Carolinas. His shop is very experienced with vintage-sign refurbishments, and Dale is very deadline-conscious.

It would’ve been much less expensive to simply send the sign to a “boneyard” for cast-off signage and other defunct, electrical equipment. But, knowing the city’s strong intent to keep the sign, I priced the refurbishment on the lean side – approximately $21,500. But, our quote didn’t win the contract.

Rather, it was our recommendation that we refurbish the sign from scratch instead of completing stopgap, patchwork repairs. So, instead of doing the work with the sign in place, we recommended taking it down and doing it at “ground” level. In this case, the “ground” meant the hotel’s roof. We raised the sign into place using a winch and pulley.

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Equally important, the customer stipulated project completion by New Year’s Eve, which we promised, although we signed the contract scarcely three weeks before year’s end. Greenville’s mayor, Knox White, thought New Year’s Eve would be an ideal time to symbolically reinforce the city’s commitment to preserving historic buildings – and their signage.

Working miracles

To say the sign was in bad shape would be a gross understatement; “horrible” captures its original state. People chuckle at the expression, “Held together with baling wire;” however, in this case the “H” in “Hotel” was literally secured that way, along with that other, quick-fix staple, duct tape.

When we began, we hoped to save at least one raceway. But, while removing the steel letters, we discovered the hotel hadn’t been fully vacant all these years. Within those raceways, we found the remains of hundreds of bats and birds who’d lived amidst the rust and dirt.

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Given this advanced state of deterioration, we knew the raceways couldn’t be saved. And, of course, the neon that had outlined each letter was long gone. To ensure the new sign would provide years of rust-free service, we installed new, aluminum raceways with galvanized fasteners.

Once we’d situated the sign on the roof and separated the letters from the brackets and raceways, we began grinding and sanding the chipped paint and rust with DeWalt rotary grinders and a Milwaukee Tool Co. bandsaw. Then, after filling the holes and cracks with Bondo® automotive body filler, we sanded even deeper. Next, we sprayed Sherwin-Williams’ oil-based primer on the letters, brackets and raceways, which we followed by spraypainting two coats of Sherwin-Williams “Heartthrob Red,” oil-based enamel on the letters to restore them to their original luster.

Light up the town!

With the painting behind us, we began wiring four, new France 15,000V, 60mA transformers and installing the new double-stroke, white-neon tubes inside the open channel letters. We used approximately 400 linear ft. of 15mm, Voltarc Sno-White neon and EGL electrodes.

We tested the neon letters on the roof, prior to lifting them into place on the building, using the winch we’d mounted atop the tower above the roof. Once we knew they were working properly, we lowered the sign back into place and used the existing wall brackets to re-mount it.

They say timing is everything, and it certainly was for us. We completed pulling the primary wire from the two raceways over to the electrical box on the afternoon of December 31. TV crews filmed Dale rappelling off the towers pulling wire and doing final touchups; the footage appeared on that evening’s local news.

At 7:30 that evening, Mayor White and several invitees, including my wife, Mary, and I, stood on the roof as, under the glow of the TV crews’ lights, he pushed the T-shaped plunger switch that brought the Poinsett sign back to life. And, another piece of Greenville’s history was saved.

Equipment and Materials

Coatings: Automotive body filler, from Bondo Corp. (Atlanta), (888) 442-6636 or www.3m.com/US/auto_marine_aero/Bondo; Oil-based primer and enamels, from Sherwin-Williams (Cleveland), (800) 474-3794 or www.sherwin-williams.com;

Neon: Electrodes, from EGL Co. Inc. (Berkeley Heights, NJ), (908) 508-1111 or www.egl-neon.com ; ServiceMaster ferromagnetic 15,000V, 60mA transformers, from |2125| (Fairview, TN), (615) 799-0551 or www.franceformer.com; SnoWhite, 15mm neon tubing from Voltarc Technologies Inc. (Waterbury, CT), (203) 578-4600 or www.voltarc.com.

Tools: Rotary grinder, from DeWalt (Hampstead, MD), (800) 433-9258 or www.dewalt.com; bandsaw, from Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. (Brookfield, WI), (800) 729-3878 or www.milwaukeetool.com.

More about Jack

Jack-of-all-trades aptly describes Jack Thomas. His first career involved industrial sales and marketing for Homelite and Senco Products of St. Paul, MN and Kansas City, respectively. Ultimately, his career ambitions led him back to North Carolina, where he opened his own construction-equipment distributorship, which he operated for three years.

Then, his father, John C. Thomas, lured him away by convincing him to join Charlotte-based JC Thomas Marketing Communications. Given Jack’s strong sales background, it suited him well; he spent the next 15 years preparing to run the agency and bringing his younger brother, Joel, on board before ultimately buying his dad out.

His career took a fortuitous turn when a few clients asked him to produce signage. Signage, after all, represents a graphic art. Jack accepted the assignments, and he ultimately handled most of the signs’ design and manufacturing himself because he’d always been a talented craftsman.

In 2002, the sign business became a subsidiary of the ad agency. However, within the next two years, Jack decided it needed his full attention. He sold his share of the agency to Joel and established his own business, Thomas Sign Creations. He hasn’t looked back.

Jack has been married to his wife, Mary, for 29 years. They have a son, two daughters and three grandchildren, and they’re extremely grateful that son John, and his wife, Joy, both captains in the U.S. Army, have returned safely from Iraq.

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