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The Return of the Neon Sign

There was a time when a large percentage of Downtown Raleigh businesses announced their presence with neon or an otherwise illuminated sign. This began to change in the late 1960s, as businesses fled downtown for the suburbs. Later, overzealous sign ordinances restricted the size and outlawed illumination, and the signs began to fade away.

Although Downtown has experienced a surge of growth and life in the past few years, it’s only within the past couple of months that the neon sign appeared poised for a comeback.

The Neon Stalwarts

Before we look at some of the neon newcomers, let’s look at the few that managed to survive.

Mecca’s sign is without a doubt the most memorable of the remaining downtown neon. Until recently, the only times one could see the sign lit was during the winter, when it was dark before closing time (7PM). Now Mecca remains open late night and is visible year-round.

Double-exposure shot of the Krispy Kreme sign

After some detective work by Goodnight Raleigh readers, the Krispy Kreme sign on Person Street was dated to 1970.

The Firestone service station on South Dawson Street.

The Arby’s cowboy hat on Hillsborough Street.

[EDIT 04/12]

The neon sign of Joe’s Place, now Brewmaster’s Bar and Grill, has also been around for a long time.

The Neon’s Gone, but the Sign Remains

1940s view of NC Equipment Building on Hillsborough Street

According to Raleigh sign ordinances, existing signs (that otherwise aren’t up to code) can remain in place provided it was still owned by the original business. In 2007, it looked as though the bulldozer sign atop the NC Equipment Company building on Hillsborough Street would need to be taken down as it had a new owner.

Luckily, city leaders recognized the sign’s historic importance and it was allowed to stay. The broken neon was removed and the sign was renovated not long after Lulu moved into the building.

Side note: The Wilmont Drug store barely visible in the foreground (most recently the home of Capitol Comics) will probably be razed in the coming months. A ‘Development Plan’ sign recently appeared in front of it, which almost universally means it is set for destruction.

Bringing it Back

The first new neon to appear in the center city was at Fox Liquor Bar on Wilmington Street late last year. Featuring only the word “LIQUOR,” the sign was designed by Josh Gajownik and created by Design Dimension.

About a month ago, Busy Bee Cafe installed a new hanging neon sign, designed by Artcraft. It was initially difficult to obtain permission from the city to install it. After some detective work by Ladye Jane Vickers (former Curator of the Raleigh City Museum), the management of Busy Bee were able to prove that the older business once at the location (also called Busy Bee) once had neon signage.

After that, it was easy to move forward and enlist the design work of Artcraft to make it.

Although the indoor neon sign above is likely new, Artcraft as a company has been a fixture of Raleigh for over 75 years. They are currently located on Hillsborough Street near the Capitol.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Downtown was once full of neon, and below are but a small few of the ones that once were displayed in Raleigh.

Image courtesy NC Dept. of Archives and History

Boon-Iseley Drug Store on Fayetteville Street

Image courtesy NC Dept. of Archives and History

The Hotel Sir Walter had not only this sign attached to the building, but one on top as well.

Image courtesy NC Dept. of Archives and History

Hanging sign for Blackwelder’s Barbeque, in the building now occupied by Slim’s Downtown Distillery.

Neon signs on Hillsborough Street for the College Grill and Studio 1, via NCSU archives

The College Grill was a small bar that operated until the 1970s, and has been closed ever since. It’s owned by Mitch (of Mitch’s Tavern) and he just lets it sit empty.

Studio 1 (previously home to the Varsity Theatre) was an X-rated theater at the time of the photo above. The theater later became a McDonald’s, then a college book store, and now sits vacant next to Mitch’s Tavern.

Image courtesy NC Dept. of Archives and History

The giant neon sign of the Hotel Carolina, which was razed in the late 70s.

Image courtesy of Sandy Shultz

Above is Reddy Kilowatt, the neon mascot of electric utilities for about 60 years. This particular neon sign was on the west end of Hillsborough Street on the power substation near Arby’s.

Reddy Kilowatt is a corporate mascot and, well, “spokesthing,” created in 1926 by Ashton B. Collins, Sr., of the Alabama Power Company. Reddy has a lightbulb for a nose, wall outlets for ears and a torso and limbs made of lightning bolts. The character was licensed to power companies across the United States to represent electricity as a safe and useful utility. Employed by more than 200 different companies at one time, he is rarely seen outside of antique malls and garage sales these days.

Although Downtown has only seen two external new signs recently, I hope this is a trend that continues. I also hope the City of Raleigh acts less like Cary with regard to sign ordinances and returns to its roots in allowing them. They serve as excellent way finding points and give character to an area–as well as serve as an artistic marketing device for small businesses.

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