LEDs + Lighting
The Pepsi-Cola Generation
Preserved in neon for now and ever more
Pepsi-Cola’s neon sign, which originally hailed its Long Island City, NY, bottling plant, withstood the elements of nature and age for 65 years. The sign also faced a tougher challenge — redevelopment. Community support and the New York City Landmark Commission’s blessing have preserved the sign as a community heirloom and a beacon to historical conservation.
An American icon for 106 years, Pepsi-Cola’s roots harken back to 1889, when Caleb Bradham, a New Bern, NC, pharmacist, offered his own soda drink, which comprised sweet sugar, vanilla, rare oils, kola-nut extract, peppermint and carbonation. Originally named Brad’s Drink in 1898, it was renamed Pepsi Cola several months later.
Pepsi sales dramatically increased, and, in 1938, the Pepsi-Cola Corp. opened its Long Island City (LIC) bottling plant, which was, at that time, the largest, U.S., Pepsi bottling plant. The self-sustaining facility made its own syrup and bottle caps, and, at that time, it bottled, packaged and shipped the drink throughout the eastern United States.
Pepsi plants the neon sign
As a point of pride, in 1938, the LIC Pepsi bottling plant installed the company’s largest neon sign on the facility’s rooftop. Built by the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., the structure comprised a 120-ft.-long sign grid covered with the product name. Shaped in the classic, 1930s, Art Deco, cursive script, the letters were formed with open-face channel letters outlined with exposed, ruby-red, neon lighting. Capitals “P” and “C” stood approximately 44 ft. high. Smaller letters ranged from 15 to 18 ft. high. Pepsi purists note that the “double dot” colon, which appeared with the original Pepsi name, was replaced by the dash in 1942 to “modernize” the logo.Advertisement
To complete the billboard, a 50-ft.-high, filled and capped Pepsi bottle stood to the right of the brand name. The bottle was handpainted onto cut-out metal and illuminated by two, 400W, high-intensity discharge lamps. Also, ruby-red neon trimmed the bottle’s outer edges.
The sign illustrated a different economy as well. The oversized bottle cap advertised “5 cents” next to its brand name. When the price increased, the bottle cap was replaced with a full bottle as the sign’s end piece.
Over the decades, the rooftop sign has become an East River waterfront landmark. The sign faced Manhattan, where the United Nations building stands on the opposing shoreline. A beacon to all East River traffic, the sign has served as a cultural icon to many generations of New Yorkers.
Refurbishing the sign
In 1994, Artkraft Strauss completely refurbished the Pepsi sign. Pepsi-Cola, according to Tony Calvano, Artkraft’s outside operations manager at the time, wanted the sign to retain its waterfront, neon glow.
Calvano said that Artkraft first measured the sign’s sections to properly duplicate them.Advertisement
“The sign was originally constructed from galvanized steel,” Calvano said. “We found corrosive exposure all over the sign face. The electrical condition was also what you’d expect from a 55-year-old sign. There were some code violations and a few neon outages. We corrected all that, rebuilt where necessary and brought everything up to code. We also checked all the lifting points on every sign section and, for safety’s sake, replaced each sign’s lifting bolts to ensure they were secure enough to be used during the removal part of the project.”
To maintain its operational status and keep its original look, the entire sign structure was repainted. Some of the support structure’s steel was scrapped, while the rest was refurbished, primed and repainted. Also, Artkraft refabricated all the letters and the bottle, duplicating the original style and craftsmanship.
In 1998, the LIC Pepsi bottling plant relocated; the original plant was closed and, with the adjacent land, offered for sale. New York City-based Rockrose Development Corp. acquired the land and the bottling plant in a three-way deal between the Pepsi-Cola Corp. and state and city governments. The area is currently being transformed into “Queens West,” a mixed-use complex of several apartment towers (with a total of 3,200 apartments), a middle school, offices, retail stores and a waterfront park.
During land-use negotiations, the community expressed its desire to preserve the Pepsi sign. The former industrial complex was being transformed into high-rise apartments for New York City residents, but the community wanted to preserve such important local icons as the Pepsi sign.
Public meetings were held in Queens, and mail-in campaigns and petitions supporting the sign were circulated. Many sign supporters acknowledged the sign as an icon of the New York City waterfront and a representation of Long Island City’s manufacturing roots. The sign’s impact has been significant enough upon New York City that it has been submitted for landmark status (pending at press time).
The sign’s significance to the community also impressed art photographer Vera Lutter who documented the bottling plant’s deconstruction and the sign’s relocation.Advertisement
The Pepsi-Cola Co. stipulated the sign must remain part of the landscape of any new waterfront construction. Pepsi spokesperson Christine Jones said the sign was a “symbol of our trademark and of our commitment to New York City.” To honor that presence, the Pepsi-Cola Co. paid for the sign’s reconstruction, operation and maintainance.
Peter Wilcox, Pepsi-Cola’s director of government affairs, observed, “The sign is a timeless symbol of what the greater community was about and touched back to a former era when manufacturing was a part of Long Island City and something the community wanted to preserve by keeping the sign as a monument to that era.”
The sign remained intact during the construction process. The plan called for the sign to be removed from the bottling plant and transferred to a temporary holding site about 500 ft. from its original installation site. When the Queens West apartment complex and waterfront river park are finished, the Pepsi sign will be removed from its temporary site and installed in a new, permanent location within the waterpark.
The neon generation
The Pepsi sign’s preservation inspired a harmonic convergence between the Pepsi-Cola Co., the greater New York City/Queens community and the New York City Landmark Commission, who agreed the historically important sign must be preserved in its original form.
Kenny Greenberg, owner of Krypton Neon (Long Island City, New York) and a participant in the community effort to save the sign, noted that other local, neon spectaculars, such as the animated Swingline Staple sign, weren’t saved when companies moved or went out of business.
“The Pepsi sign is one of the few remaining and operational, gigantic neon signs in Long Island City,” Greenberg noted. “In the past, these types of signs were everywhere, serving as illuminated outdoor billboards, but, today, very few are left in almost any major, U.S. city.”
Bernado Fort-Brescia, principal of the architectural firm Arquitectonica (Miami), which was selected to create the Queens West residential complex, readily noted the sign’s importance. “Long Island City has an industrial past that’s very much a part of its cultural identity,” Fort-Brescia said. “Signs like the Pepsi-Cola billboard are a part of what this city’s all about. In any new development, it’s important to save some elements of its past to tell the story about its place in time.”
Today, two-thirds of that plan has been implemented. In 2004, the sign was removed from the bottling plant, which has been dismantled. The sign is temporarily parked in its new location, awaiting completion of the mixed-use complex. In 2006, the Pepsi sign is scheduled to return to its new permanent location.
The right one, uh-huh
Landmark Signs (New York City), a full-service, sign-installation and electrical-maintenance company, handled the sign’s relocation to its temporary home on the East River waterfront, just 500 yds. from the Pepsi-plant rooftop. Calvano, who founded Landmark, described how his company moved the sign. Because the sign had been already completely refurbished and modernized, the dismantling went quickly, because, as he stated, “detrimental physical condition issues had been dealt with prior to removal.
“Before we removed the Pepsi sign, we had to first build a temporary sign-structure to hang the Pepsi sign on,” Calvano said. “This involved driving 40 foundation piles at least 60 ft. into the ground to set the sign-structure foundation. Four footings, which measured 15 x 23 ft., were then dug around groups of 10 pilings per footing. Five-ft.-long, anchor-bolt cages and 13/8-in., rebar mats were assembled and squared off in each cavernous hole. Then, more than 200 yds. of concrete were poured into the matted, formed footings.”
After the concrete cured, Landmark built a second, identical sign structure. This allowed each sign section to be properly reconnected, as it had been on its former rooftop sign structure.
Landmark first removed the sign’s outer parts, including the letter “P” and the Pepsi bottle, to ensure even letter spacing on the new sign structure. The “P” itself comprised 11 separate sign sections. Thus, work proceeded from the outer edges to the middle of the sign. Starting at the top, a 135-ft. boom removed each sign segment and placed it on a flatbed truck, which drove it the 1,500 ft. to its new sign location.
The neon tubes attached to each letter section were left in place. Only neon that overlapped two succeeding sign segments was temporarily removed to separate and lower each section to the ground. In reverse, each sign section was properly secured on the new structure, and the overlapping neon tubes were reattached.
Calvano detailed the mirror process. “We waited until all the sign segments of each letter were by the new sign grid before we began to place each letter’s sign panels on the new sign structure. We started at the bottom and built each letter upwards to completion.”
The relocation entailed approximately three weeks. However, winter weather delayed the construction of the sign-structure foundation, and the entire project ran from October 2003 until the beginning of March 2004.
Pepsi-Cola stands as an icon in American history, and the Long Island City neon sign is a keepsake of that heritage. An LIC sign supporter sumarized, “It’s a piece of American pop culture — something that everyone can relate to.” Another resident put the final cap on the project, “The Pepsi sign just belongs here.”
Vera Lutter Uniquely Documents the Pepsi Sign’s Deconstruction
The Long Island City Pepsi-Cola sign has inspired admiration from not only the local community, but also a noted art photographer, Vera Lutter.
A native German based in New York City, Lutter immortalized the Pepsi-Cola sign’s removal with a distinctive photographic process. In 1998, she began to document the plant’s, and the sign’s, deconstruction and removal. Her series of 8-ft.-high x 14-ft.-long, black-and-white photographs depict the step-by-step deconstruction process.
Lutter’s photographic documentation incorporates a Renaissance drawing technique known as a camera obscura (“dark room”). The process involves a pitch-black area (in Lutter’s case, a shed) with a pinhole opening on one side. Light shines through the pinhole and reconstructs the area “photographed” on blank photographic paper, which is placed where the image falls on the opposing wall, exposed and then developed.
Lutter’s assistant, Josh Brown, explained the setup and operation of the camera obscura. “Lutter’s camera obscura, essentially a wooden, lightproof, 20-ft.-long x 10-ft.-tall x 8-ft.-deep shed, was placed on the roof of the Pepsi plant about 100 ft. directly behind the Pepsi sign. Because of its proximity and height to the sign, Lutter built her camera device on top of a roof air conditioner, which was a perfect vantage point to cover the sign’s disassembly.”
Images were created on Ilford, fiber-based, black-and-white photo paper, which came in 56-in. rolls and was cut to 8-ft. lengths. Each exposure required approximately four hours. Once exposed, the photographic papers were rolled up into a lightproof tube and developed into final prints in Lutter’s Manhattan studio.
Lutter photographed the sign grid daily as each letter disappeared. First, we see the complete sign face on its structure, the gradual removal of the letters and, finally, the empty sign structure facing the East River. Soon, just the sign grid itself remained.
Twelve prints were created to record the sign’s deconstruction. Each image is a direct exposure (no negatives are involved). Only one set of images can be shown in the future.
The Pepsi sign has been safely preserved by Lutter’s camera obscura. The sign has passed its first era from a neon billboard to a new era as an art sculpture. Lutter’s photographic documentation of the Pepsi sign captured its emergence as a community heirloom and recorded it as an historic moment of the sign’s continuing passage through the Long Island City community.
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