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Ion Art’s Varsity Building Sign and Mural

Program revitalizes historic Austin structure

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Wesleann Polkowske is a production assistant for Ion Art (Austin, TX).

In our full-service fabrication and production studio, we pride ourselves on our unique style and ability to create memorable and distinctive signage and décor. A company built on the marriage of art and function, it’s beautified Austin’s skyline for 25 years with its technical sophistication.

For its latest project, Ion Art played a pivotal role in rejuvenating a prominent Austin business center. We recreated the distinctive, three-story, vintage neon sign at the Varsity Theater building on Guadalupe St., and restored the building’s original, 104-ft.-long mural, a local landmark that Carlos Lowry produced.

The Varsity building is prominently located along a major street adjacent to the University of Texas. Through the years, it housed many businesses before it deteriorated into an empty behemoth, a darkened shell lurking over an otherwise emerging shopping district. Though the building remained unused, the façade’s artistic mural, which celebrates several historic films and characters, remained a favorite among locals.

When the Meridian Group purchased the property, it intended to maintain the building’s historical flair. Rather than a complete architectural overhaul, it opted for updates that architect Michael Antenora called “reasonable facsimiles of the original. This marriage of classic style with a modern twist maintains the integrity of the original work, while allowing the building to evolve.”

Austinites enthusiastically supported the project. In essence, the spirit of Austin business has itself been a marriage of these qualities for many years. The city’s slogan of “Keep Austin Weird” captures the importance the town’s inhabitants place on individuality and creativity.

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“Many sign companies are very industrially focused; they present themselves as strictly builders and manufacturers. They lack an orientation towards design; thus, their final products often don’t align with the designer’s original intent. Because we’re designers and fabricators, we understand architects’ and designers’ initial project intent, and are able to fully bring those qualities to life,” said Greg Keshishian, co-owner at Ion Art, when he described why our company’s dedication to artistry and local flavor enables Ion Art to handle historic renovations.

Permits and paperwork
Greg often jokes that building this sign was easy compared to getting the necessary permits. Typically smooth, the permitting process normally entails only an application and artwork submittal. Assuming your sign conforms to code, the procedure usually takes less than a month.

It soon became very clear the regular permitting process wouldn’t suffice for such a large-scale project. The proposed sign, reminiscent of the original sign’s style, was, in square feet, more than five times larger than what the city allows in that district. Also, current city code wouldn’t allow a sign projecting over the sidewalk in that area. However, the precedent set by the original Varsity sign gave our team hope for a variance.

The lengthy, convoluted, variance-filing process involved many meetings with the architects and city officials, as well as organizing a Board of Adjustment meeting. We even needed an assist from Austin’s Historical Preservation Society. However, the Varsity sign’s history and prominence, and the prospect of restoring the building’s vintage character, weighed greatly in Ion Art’s favor. Six months later, the council granted the variance.

Muralizing
The first restoration step involved repainting the mural alongside the building. Because painting and construction occurred simultaneously, several parties needed to coordinate. A road and sidewalk closure obtained from the city restricted working hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because the property would be divided into multiple retail outlets, the mural needed repainting in some places. Additionally, more than half of it would need repositioning to allow new tenant signage. The sun and natural elements had exacted a toll on the mural, which was originally painted in 1980. On certain panels, the images had deteriorated beyond recognition, and detail work had flaked off.

We located archived images of the original mural, and took high-resolution photographs to recreate the artwork. In most cases, the painting needed to be scraped down and completely recreated. We fabricated stencils to use as a design and positioning template. Staff artists painted the areas by hand to mimic Lowry’s original work. The painters endured the hot Texas sun for three weeks to reprise the mural.

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Lead artist Jason Bartsch said, despite the intense heat and workload, he was proud to have been a part of a project so uniquely “Austin.” We painted the mural directly on brick with Sherwin-Williams exterior-latex paint, with every possible tool from ¼-in.-wide fitches to 18-in.-long paint rollers.

For the eyes of Texas
The sign itself was built over three weeks in Ion Art’s fabrication studio. After all the preparation and anticipation, our fabricators were excited to finally build the sign. Building the 8 x 30-ft., double-sided, projecting sign required the skills of almost everyone in the shop. We MIG-welded the 30 ft. of steel backbone with a Miller three-phase system, and painted the aluminum face’s vibrant colors with Matthews acrylic-polyurethane coating. We fabricated the acrylic and vinyl tenant signs from cut vinyl fabricated on a Graphtec FC2100-50 Cutting Pro plotter.

While the tenant panels were lit with fluorescent lights, we illumi-nated and accented the blade sign with 453 linear ft. of triple-stroke “Euro” glass (a type of tubing with a heavily saturated color coating, which yields more vibrant hues), 15mm noviol-gold, citrus-orange and 4,500k, white exposed neon – one of the project’s most distinctive features. More than 20 Transco transformers – a combination of 9,000V/30mA and 7,500V/30mA powersources – light the sign.

Mark Westphal, Ion Art’s resident neon-tube bender, remained busy for weeks, excited about the project’s authenticity. “The great thing about bending the neon for The Varsity wasn’t just its reflection of the building’s history and architecture,” he said. “We had a client who understood the importance of using noviol gold for the yellow, and citrus orange for the orange – the good stuff. We installed it within housings to create clean light. Great clients with high standards help yield excellent results.”

Ion Art built the sign in two can sections: the blade sign in one, and the tenant panels in the other. Once we’d completed both, the sign was assembled in-house, and loaded onto the truck. A project that had taken months of preparation and weeks to build would be installed in less than one day. A 60-ft. crane lifted the sign into the air, and, within minutes, it was bolted to structural I-beams inside the building. The design and preparation was thorough and flawless. Everyone held their breath; an exposed-neon project of this size leaves chances for breakage and wiring mistakes.

“The most rewarding part of the entire project was when the installation was complete, and the switch was flipped,” Greg said. “The installation and wiring were all completed right at dusk – the perfect conditions for neon. When the switch was flipped, everything lit gloriously. It was a perfect moment.”

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For more samples of the signs and project completed by Ion Art, or to inquire about a project, visit www.ionart.com, e-mail [email protected], or call (512) 326-9333.

Equipment and Materials
Acrylic: Plexiglas® 3/16-in. acrylic, from SABIC Polymershapes (Pittsfield, MA), (413) 448-7110 or www.sabic-ip.com
Cabinet: Custom-welded and fabricated from 0.125-in.-thick aluminum, and 4 x 4 steel tubing with a 3/16-in.-thick wall, available from building- and industrial-supply shops.
Coatings: Exterior-latex paint, from Sherwin-Williams (Cleveland), (800) 474-3794 or www.sherwinwilliams.com; acrylic-polyurethane coating, from Matthews Paint (800) 323-6593 or www.signpaint.com
Crane: HiReach G85R aerial-work platform, from Elliott Equipment (Omaha, NE), (402) 592-4500 or www.elliottequip.com
Lighting: Noviol-gold, citrus-orange and white “Euro glass” neon tubing, available from architectural-glass distributors; neon transformers, from Transco (West Columbia, SC), (800) 869-6366
or www.transco-usa.com
Plotter: Cutting Pro FC2100-50 cutting plotter, from Graphtec America (Irvine, CA), (800) 854-8385 or www.graphtecamerica.com
Vinyl: Oracal 8800 premium, cast vinyl, from Oracal (Black Creek, GA), (888) 672-2251 or www.oracal.com
Welder: Three-phase MIG welder, from Miller Electric Mfg. Co. (Appleton, WI), (920) 734-9821 or www.millerwelds.com

More about Ion Art
Ion Art was founded in 1986 by husband and wife Greg and Sharon Keshishian. The shop produces unique neon and metal signs, architectural lighting and water features.
Ion Art is currently certified as a Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) by the Texas Building and Procurement Commission (qualified businesses must be minority or woman-owned by a Texas resident, and receive priority consideration on state-funded projects).
Ion Art is a certified Austin Green Choice Partner, as well as a member of the International Sign Assn. and the Texas Sign Assn.
 

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