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Signs of the times: Preservationists aim to relight Sonoma County with neon

Neon sign spotting: lit and unlit

Take a self-guided tour to search out these vintage signs in Sonoma County. Petaluma in particular is a hot spot for these old signs.

Know of another cool, retro neon sign in Sonoma County that’s not on this list? Send the address, and even a photo if you have one, to onlineideas@pressdemocrat.com and we’ll add it.

The Buckhorn: 615 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma

Elm Court: 4545 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

The Hatchery Restaurant: 620 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

LanMart sign (non-working): 29 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

Mario John’s Tavern: 428 E. D. St., Petalulma

McNear’s Mystic Theater: 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

The Washoe House: 2840 Roblar Road, Petaluma

Twin Oaks Roadhouse: 5745 Old Redwood Highway, Penngrove

Coddingtown sign: 733 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa

Firestone sign at King’s Tires: 1075 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa

Flamingo Resort: 2777 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

Villa Trailer Park, 1975 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa

The 8 Ball: 8 Charles St., Cotati

Other signs spotted by readers:

Negri’s restaurant: 3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental

Oliver Hotel sign: 115 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

Owl Cafe, 485 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale

Pick’s Drive-In: 117 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale

Pink Elephant sign: 9895 Main St., Monte Rio

Rainbow Cattle Co.: 16220 Main St., Guerneville

Stark’s Steak & Seafood, 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa

To learn more about neon signs:

Neon Speaks Festival & Symposium: neonspeaks.org

Museum of Neon Art: neonmona.org

Neon: A Light History: historyofneon.org

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.”

Disappearing art

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.

Neon sign spotting: lit and unlit

Take a self-guided tour to search out these vintage signs in Sonoma County. Petaluma in particular is a hot spot for these old signs.

Know of another cool, retro neon sign in Sonoma County that’s not on this list? Send the address, and even a photo if you have one, to onlineideas@pressdemocrat.com and we’ll add it.

The Buckhorn: 615 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma

Elm Court: 4545 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

The Hatchery Restaurant: 620 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

LanMart sign (non-working): 29 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

Mario John’s Tavern: 428 E. D. St., Petalulma

McNear’s Mystic Theater: 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma

The Washoe House: 2840 Roblar Road, Petaluma

Twin Oaks Roadhouse: 5745 Old Redwood Highway, Penngrove

Coddingtown sign: 733 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa

Firestone sign at King’s Tires: 1075 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa

Flamingo Resort: 2777 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

Villa Trailer Park, 1975 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa

The 8 Ball: 8 Charles St., Cotati

Other signs spotted by readers:

Negri’s restaurant: 3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental

Oliver Hotel sign: 115 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

Owl Cafe, 485 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale

Pick’s Drive-In: 117 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale

Pink Elephant sign: 9895 Main St., Monte Rio

Rainbow Cattle Co.: 16220 Main St., Guerneville

Stark’s Steak & Seafood, 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa

To learn more about neon signs:

Neon Speaks Festival & Symposium: neonspeaks.org

Museum of Neon Art: neonmona.org

Neon: A Light History: historyofneon.org

Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers isolated the so-called noble gases and named one, which produced an orange-red glow, as “neon,” DeLyser said. Georges Claude ran with it, developing his own luminous tube patents and franchising Claude Neon Lights after World War I.

By the 1920s, neon was lighting highways and towns and developing as an art. And after World War II, learning to make neon lighting was a popular vocational option, DeLyser said.

“A lot of them went to neon schools. The returning vets could learn a trade they could use to raise their families. In the post-war period, all of these mom-and-pop sign shops flourished all over the country,” she said.

That influx of trained craftsmen led to a skyrocketing popularity of neon that lasted until the 1960s, when a federal highway beautification project targeted the ticky-tacky billboards and other unregulated signage that was seen as littering the landscape. Neon also got caught in the crosshairs of an SOS campaign, supported by the sign industry itself, to “Scrap Old Signs.”

“There was a backlash against neon,” DeLyser said. “It was partly because of what neon had come to stand for.”

Neon had become a pejorative denoting cheap commercialism and a cluttered environment. Frequently, but not exclusively, it was used in signs advertising beer and alcohol and came to be associated with drinking, dive bars, illicit sex and sleazy motels.

Sonoma County in neon

But there is another story, said DeLyser, who with husband Paul Greenstein, himself a sign maker, recently published a book, “Neon: A Light History.”

Neon signs also were used to attract people to a wide variety of businesses, including Petaluma’s longtime downtown jewelers.

Sign spotters in Sonoma County still can find a few survivors, including the Mario & John’s sign at 428 E. D St. in Petaluma, the glowing pink Buckhorn at 615 Petaluma Blvd. S., The 8 Ball in Cotati, Twin Oaks in Penngrove, a Firestone sign at King’s Tires on Santa Rosa Avenue in Santa Rosa and the Villa Trailer Park, also on Santa Rosa Avenue, to name a handful.

The most iconic are the monumental Coddingtown mall sign and the kitschy pink flamingo at the newly renovated Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa.

DeLyser maintains that neon unfairly got a bad rap. So often they advertised small businesses and served to invite people to gather.

“They have a geographical role of drawing people toward them, saying, ‘Come in.’ So ultimately, what these signs are doing is creating community.”

Even now, communities all over the U.S. are coming together to save them.

In Glendale, the Museum of Neon Art, for which DeLyser is a board member, seeks to raise awareness of the value of historic neon signage. It partners with the city of Los Angeles to sponsor a popular bus tour, the Neon Cruise, to showcase the history and artistry of neon.

In the tiny river Russian River town of Rio Nido, residents have rallied to restore the old neon Rio Nido sign that once flew like a red flag on the south side of the road approaching the village. It was unearthed from a resident’s garage, where it had been stored for decades. The Friends of Rio Nido set about raising money and secured grants through the Sonoma County Advertising Program to restore it.

“It was quite rusty and damaged and it didn’t have a post or anything to it, so there were costs to designing and getting the engineering done for the pole and the base. We also had to work to get the property approvals,” said Kim Holliday of Friends of Rio Nido.

Because of the complexities and mounting costs, they opted to illuminate it with LED lights that look like neon.

“People tell stories about approaching Rio Nido and feeling a simmering excitement to see the Rio Nido sign as they approached for their summery getaway,” Holiday said.

Friends of Rio Nido is now raising the last few thousand dollars to officially light up the sign.

The sign is a “point of pride,” a way of distinguishing Rio Nido from Guerneville down the road, said Ingrid Emming, also part of the group.

A delicate process

Restoring an old neon sign, particularly a large one like the Linch Jewelry sign, is a delicate process. To do it right, the heavy 12-foot sign had to be removed from the building and transported to a warehouse in Modesto for restoration. Initially, city of Petaluma planners balked. Technically, once a nonconforming sign is removed it can’t go back up.

It took several months to win permission to remove the sign, with Bixler making a case for its historical significance. Once he got the OK, he carefully planned with Arrow to get it right.

“I wasn’t willing to have it be a different color, and I wanted it to look old,” Bixler said. “One problem with sign paints is they’re shiny. It had to look old and weathered. I asked if they could put some matte varnish over it, and they were able to do it. It looks as old as ever, but it’s in perfect condition.”

The sign was removed in March of 2020 and reinstalled in June. Last year, Heritage Homes of Petaluma gave Bixler a preservation award for the project, the first time they recognized a sign renovation.

“It was a project I loved,” Bixler said. “If I’m around here for another 20 years and I live to be 98 like my grandmother and mother, I’ll be able to enjoy the sign for another 20 years. I have a daughter who works in the building, and she made it clear she wants to inherit it. I feel like this is for her and my grandson and for Petaluma.”

A growing movement

Bay Area neon enthusiasts are working to raise awareness about the historical and cultural value of old commercial signs as part of the urban landscape. The nonprofit San Francisco Neon hosts an annual Neon Speaks Symposium of experts and aficionados from across the country.

San Jose is experiencing a neon revival. Heather David has written two guides on San Jose’s neon heritage.

But there are challenges. Many signs don’t have the same historical protections as buildings, David said. And the cost for maintaining them can be prohibitive for property owners. If they can’t be maintained in place, the next best thing is relocating them to museums or outdoor neon alleys, she said.

The restoration of the Linch Jewelry sign, however, is a step toward recognizing and saving the community’s and the country’s neon heritage.

“The Linch Jewelry sign means so much to so many people, and there are so few signs left in downtown Petaluma,” she said. “For someone to open up their pocketbook to pay for its restoration says a lot. There are people coming from all over the Bay Area to photograph that sign, and now you can see it lit again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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