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American Sign Museum Restores Holiday Inn Great Sign to Full Brilliance

The restoration returns the shining star to the iconic sign.

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The American Sign Museum (ASM, Cincinnati) recently restored its 1950’s Holiday Inn sign, an enormous undertaking of 32 individuals across the country.

Known as the Great Sign, it was once an icon of the American road trip: a design landmark that dotted the nation’s highways and bi-ways. For ASM founder Tod Swormstedt, who has long dreamed of restoring the sign, it stands alongside the Speedee McDonald’s arch and the Howard Johnson’s as icons of post-WWII America.

“Kemmons Wilson — Holiday Inn founder — told me in an interview in 1998 that he took a cue from the neon and chasing lightbulb illumination of the theater marquees of the previous two decades for his sign,” Swormstedt said, “but it was the towering star that made it the beacon in the night it was. So, of course, we had to have the tower and star.”

When ASM acquired the Great Sign from the Young Electric Sign Company of Las Vegas in 2002, the starburst topper section had been missing for years. In 2019 Mike Conway, executive vice president of Business Development & Acquisition at Pyramid Global Hospitality, coordinated an independent fundraiser page to commission a new star for the sign.

“I wanted to see the Holiday Inn Great Sign restored to honor its heritage and to save an American Icon,” Conway said. “I also wanted to highlight one of the most striking utilizations of neon and incandescent lighting which welcomed millions of travelers throughout its history.”

Plans for the star section were developed based on designs by Cummings & Co, the original manufacturer of the Great Sign. Allen Industries (Toledo, OH) created the metal base and star frame. Neonworks of Cincinnati created the neon tubing and wired the new section. Finally, Atlantic Sign Company installed the completed section.

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The museum’s Great Sign is likely the only remaining authentic, full-sized exterior sign. Replicas can be found at the Henry Ford Museum and the Pink Palace in Memphis, but no others are known to exist.

The first Holiday Inn opened in 1952 in Memphis, TN, and soon grew to a thousand locations across the country. Each Great Sign required 836 feet of neon, 31 transformers, 450 light bulbs, and weighed about 14,000 lbs. The sign and all of its related branding were officially retired in 1982 when Holiday Inn switched to plastic signs, a more cost effective alternative for installation and maintenance. As the companies contracted to install the new signs were required to destroy the old Great Signs, few authentic signs remain today.

For more information, visit americansignmueseum.org.

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