Photo courtesy AGE Landscape; Neon and Vintage Sign Park rendering

Sign of the Times

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: May 2018
Group Free

Casa Grande will soon illuminate the city’s history with a new downtown park featuring its orphaned commercial signs.

Casa Grande’s new park is a gas – neon gas, specifically.

At twilight, its elements flicker to life and create a buzz that lasts all evening. Bearing names both evocative (“Sunset Court”) and pedestrian (“Goddard Shoe Store”), they glow in the darkness as if drawn with a magical luminous pen. Burning brightly in the night, the neon signs that formerly promoted businesses in the once booming mining and farming town south of the Valley have found a second career as objets d’art in the Neon and Vintage Sign Park.

The luminous relics are mostly products of the post-World War II economic boom. Their designs, which capture the period’s unbridled optimism, have received acclaim as American folk art. But when their mom and pop businesses closed, these orphaned signs lost their purpose, and almost their existence. Casa Grande, not wanting to lose the sense of place created by these landmarks, set out to preserve them in a vintage sign park.

Photo courtesy Douglas C. Towne; Cotton’s Wonder BarThe city entered a historic preservation contest in hopes of funding the project. Impassioned supporters instigated a massive crowdsourcing campaign to attract votes to win a major grant and see their dreams come to light. The project was helped by timing, according to Rina Rien, executive director of Casa Grande Main Street. “Mid-Century Modern is the style trend of the moment and appeals to both the baby boomers’ nostalgia and millennials’ ironic desire for both authentic and kitschy experiences,” she says.

The new Case Grande park follows a national trend of nostalgia for all things neon – a piece of bygone America that played a big role in her automotive heyday. Neon signs transformed outdoor advertising, beginning in 1923 when this noblest of lights made its domestic debut in Los Angeles at the Earle C. Anthony Packard dealership in Los Angeles.

Neon light, dubbed “liquid fire,” is created by electrifying a noble gas, most commonly neon or argon, in a vacuum-sealed glass tube. Neon gas produces a reddish-orange glow; argon gas creates a blue radiance. Additional colors are created using other gases or by baking a phosphorescent powder onto the interior of a glass tube.

Neon signs became popular across the nation. In Casa Grande, neon displays were used by downtown merchants and entrepreneurs hawking gas, food and lodging on Arizona Highway 84. The road was a shortcut between Tucson and Gila Bend for travelers on U.S. Highway 80, a busy cross-country thoroughfare that carried more vehicles to California than did Route 66.

Casa Grande’s roadside is still graced by memorable neon signs from this pre-interstate era, including the Boots and Saddle Motel, Cotton’s Wonder Bar and the Se-Tay Motel, all installed in the 1940s. The latter name is an inside joke; it’s the original owner’s name, “Yates,” spelled backward. Many of the city’s other mid-century neon displays were destroyed or obtained by private collectors after businesses closed. A lucky few were donated to Casa Grande organizations.

Amidst this darkening of the city’s heritage, a ray of light appeared from an unlikely source in 2012. Marge Jantz, an energetic Scottsdale transplant with swirls of purple running through her silver hair, believed relighting historic signs would be a catalyst for downtown revitalization. “I have an extravagant fondness for the color and flash of neon signs,” she says. As chairwoman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, Jantz led efforts to obtain a grant for a Historic Resource Survey, and to partner with the Casa Grande Main Street organization to raise funds to restore orphaned signs.

Photo courtesy Douglas C. Towne; Se-Tay Motel, 2006The commission’s initial project was the sign from Sunset Court, a business started by Earl Osborne Sr. and his wife, Gertrude, in 1929. The couple lived in a tent during construction of their general store, Texaco gas station and 10-cabin “court,” aka motel. Gertrude’s diary notes that the first and most important building the family built was an outhouse. The Osborne family eventually sold the business in 2001. The Sunset Court sign, dating from the 1940s, was deteriorating at the vacant property when it was donated to the commission. It was refurbished and mounted above a mural featuring historic local landmarks on the side of the Western Trading Post building downtown. The display was re-lit with three generations of the Osborne family watching during a ceremony in 2017.

The restored Sunset Court sign raised public awareness about the city’s historic resources. In 2017, the city entered its proposed vintage sign park in the Partners in Preservation: Vote Your Main Street competition sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I think people were both in awe and disbelief that our small community could possibly be competing in a nationwide contest with such high stakes,” Jantz says.

Casa Grande came in second (first place: two 20th-century African-American historic sites in Philadelphia), ahead of 23 other projects including those in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City, and was awarded a $144,000 grant. The sign park is currently under construction and is scheduled to be finished by December. The Kramer family, which owns Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc., donated property for the park, which will link downtown with the city’s arts district. Sign restoration will be done by Graham’s Neon in Mesa and Cook & Company Signmakers in Tucson.

The park is part of a nationwide movement toward displaying orphaned signs. “This is great for nostalgic locals and design-loving tourists,” says Debra Jane Seltzer, author of the 2017 book Vintage Signs of America. “It keeps the signs in their outdoor element, where they were meant to be seen.” Sign parks are considered a last resort in preservation; business owners are encouraged to leave signs on-site when possible. “Without vintage signs, the entire country will be characterless, with nothing but chain stores from coast to coast,” Seltzer says. “When we travel, there will be no regionalism, no fun, no design and nothing to photograph.”

What are the prospects for something similar in the Valley? “Ever since the tragic fall of Mesa’s iconic Diving Lady sign in 2010, and its reinstallation three and a half years later, the Valley has experienced a renaissance of interest in the colorful, magical gas,” Victor Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation, says. “Mesa has led the effort to inventory its remaining historic neon. We’re working with the city to create a space in which signs that have lost their homes can be displayed.”

Nothing is likely to happen soon, Linoff says. “Right now the goal is to save at-risk signs, and then worry about reinstallation down the road.”

The evolution of signs from marketing tools to essential parts of a city’s aesthetic is the result of a powerful, unseen factor. “The common thread that runs through preserving vintage signs is emotional,” Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, says. “Signs are a proverbial walk down memory lane, and they almost always conjure up fond memories.”

Casa Grande is ready to let the good times glow.

Sunset Court

A Luminous Cast
The orphaned vintage signs to be featured at the Casa Grande Neon and Vintage Sign Park:

Sunset Motel neon sign mounted adjacent to the park – 1940s

Horse Shoe Motel neon sign – 1960

Dairy Queen “lips” sign, formerly located on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ – 1970

Dairy Queen “cones” sign – 1970s

Goddard Shoe Store enamel neon sign – 1945

Coxon’s Building Supplies neon sign – 1950

Arizona Edison neon sign – 1940s

Three signs owned by the Museum of Casa Grande may also be displayed:

Gorraiz PhotoShop neon sign – 1965

Sacaton Hotel neon sign – 1950

Valley National Bank gel-coated fiberglass sign – 1950