Signs of the times: Preservationists aim to relight Sonoma County with neon
Back in the mid-20th century, neon signs were on the skids.
Public tastes had turned against the ubiquitous glowing letters and cocktail glasses that beckoned people to dime stores, diners, laundromats and lounges in virtually every town in America, from tiny burgs to big cities. Neon, associated in the public’s mind with Vegas gambling and prostitution, became a tarnished symbol of the worst of modern life.
Even as early as 1946, in the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey finds himself thrust into the future “Pottersville,” a hellscape of neon signs signifying moral decay.
But local landmark preservationists and enthusiasts who appreciate both the cultural history inherent in neon signs and the artistry that went into their creation are sending out an SOS to spare the few neon signs that are left.
“Sadly, the number of neon signs existing within Petaluma and Sonoma County in general have diminished dramatically over the years, making those that remain even more worthy of preservation,” said Katherine Rinehart, a professional historian based in Petaluma who has long been interested in historic buildings. A sign, she added, is an important architectural element too often overlooked.
Fortunately, she said, that wasn’t the case with Garth Bixler, a Petaluma property owner who recently sank $30,000 into restoring an old neon sign that had perched on the side of his building at 10 Western Ave. since 1947.
The business it advertised, Linch Jewelry, was gone. But that didn’t matter to Bixler. He believed the sign was an essential part of the character of the 1910 brick commercial building designed by renowned early 20th century Petaluma architect Brainerd Jones.
Bixler restored the building 20 years ago. But the faded old sign hanging over the structure had taken a beating.
Over the years, Bixler was able to call on Barber Sign Co. of Petaluma, which built the sign just after World War II, to make minor repairs. But about five years ago, as workers restored trim on the building, someone backed a cherrypicker truck into the sign.
“It was repaired, but it just didn’t last,” Bixler recalled. “It must have joggled the metal case, and it broke some of the neon glass tubing.”
By that time, Barber Sign Co. had been sold after 80 years in business. So Bixler went searching for a company with expertise in restoring old neon signs using the original technology of glass tubing and gas.
He turned to Oakland’s Arrow Sign Co., which opened in 1952 as the Arrow Neon Sign Co. and specialized in theater lighting. Ever since florescent lights and then LED lights behind sheet plastic came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, neon sign-making has been a diminishing art. But some, like Arrow, continue to carry a torch for neon.
“It’s not good for everything. It’s not as durable. It needs more service,” Arrow president Charlie Stroud said. “But it’s just a beautiful method of illumination you can’t accomplish any other way.”
Warren Barber built the Linch Jewelry sign in Petaluma around 1947, the same year he graduated from the Acme Neon Institute in Chicago. It likely was one of his first, if not very first, significant neon signs, said his son Paul, who served in the family business for more than 40 years before selling Barber Sign Co. in 2015.
Like many veterans returning from the war, Warren Barber took advantage of the GI Bill to learn a trade. His older brother Lewis, who started the company in 1935, likely designed the Linch Jewelry sign and Warren constructed it.
Paul Barber knew the sign well, having repaired it many times. Now a collector of old neon, he is in the process of making two one-third-scale models of the Linch sign, one for himself and one for his buddy.
“I’m going to install it on a pole in the middle of the backyard,” he said.
Neon is not something any sign maker can do. It takes special training to learn to bend glass tubes into letters or shapes and then illuminate them with inert gas.
When an electric current hits the electrodes in the tubes, electrons flow through the gas, making its atoms glow. The type of gas in the tubes determines the color of the light. In the 1930s, phosphorescent coatings and colored tubing introduced a rainbow of additional neon colors.
In the 1890s, inventor Nikola Tesla developed the first wireless luminous tubing, which he dubbed “as lovely a phenomenon as can greet our eyes.” Tesla wasn’t successful in commercially marketing the marvel. But others continued to experiment, said Dydia DeLyser, a cultural-historical geographer at Cal State Fullerton who specializes in neon signs.