If someone told you today that a new, brightly lit neon sign was going up across the street from where you live, you might react with disgust at the thought of such a commercial eyesore invading the skyline of your community. Yet when some older sign or billboard is threatened, everyone is suddenly up in arms, rushing to its defense. How does something as mundane as outdoor advertising grow to become considered an essential piece of the urban fabric?
Take, for example, the recent news that the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission bestowed landmark status on a neon, 147-foot-long Pepsi-Cola sign dating back to 1936. The sign, made by a company called Artkraft Strauss, once sat atop a Pepsi bottling plant in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, and it is widely accepted as an important aesthetic element of the community, having been saved multiple times already.
“They no longer merely advertise, but are valued in and of themselves. They become icons”
It was first put up for landmark consideration in 1988, the New York Times reported then, and was reconstructed by PepsiCo in 1993 after it was severely damaged in a storm.
When Pepsi sold the plant in 1999, the company included a stipulation that the sign would remain, carving out a chunk of land on the East River front for it to occupy. In 2013, the development company behind a new residential tower took the sign into considering while designing the new building, making sure that there was space provided for the sign to keep its place on the waterfront.
Why go through all this effort to preserve this Pepsi ad? It doesn’t appear to arise out of any overwhelming affection for the beverage.
We’ve got historyImage courtesy of Eric Hauser
The public’s connection with these structures runs a bit deeper than just brand loyalty. It’s a bond that can grow from familiarity and a shared history. In a brief regarding the preservation of historic signs, the National Park Service makes a surprisingly eloquent argument.
“They become landmarks, loved because they have been visible at certain street corners — or from many vantage points across the city — for a long time,” writes Michael J. Auer in the brief. “Such signs are valued for their familiarity, their beauty, their humor, their size, or even their grotesqueness. In these cases, signs transcend their conventional role as vehicles of information, as identifiers of something else. When signs reach this stage, they accumulate rich layers of meaning. They no longer merely advertise, but are valued in and of themselves. They become icons.”
Katie Rispoli, executive director for We Are the Next, a non-profit group that helped save the original Taco Bell building, agrees — in this specific instance, and in general.
“It’s not about PepsiCo in a lot of ways; it’s about the sign and the sense of continuity in what they see every day, and this place and the sense of gravitas that they get in their own neighborhood,” Rispoli told Consumerist. “It’s something that represents the place that they call home.”
These kinds of signs also represent a community’s commercial past, located atop factories or company headquarters. They serve to remind people of an economic boom time, in many cases, a time when people were busy at work in the building.
“Signs are like archeological layers that reveal different periods of human occupancy and use,” Auer writes. “They sometimes become landmarks in themselves, almost without regard for the building to which they are attached, or the property on which they stand.“
“It’s about the sign and the sense of continuity in what they see every day… It’s something that represents the place that they call home.”
Lannette Schwartz, a sign enthusiast who is pursuing her thesis in Heritage Conservation in the school of architecture at the University of Southern California, agrees, noting that a familiar sign can give people “a sense of place during that past era, for the community now, and the people who identify” with it.
Beyond the familiarity factor, many people treasure these older signs, billboards, and other commercial structures because of the work that went into constructing them; work that can’t always be easily replicated today.
Many signs weren’t mass-produced, and used neon or other materials that aren’t easy to work with and require a high level of skill, Schwartz explains.
“They actually have skilled workers and artists involved in creating these signs,” she tells Consumerist. “That creates a unique piece of history and art.”
That can make reconstructions especially difficult or financially cumbersome, which adds to an existing sign’s air of elevated craftsmanship.
For example, Boston residents are no doubt familiar with a glowing 60′ x 60′ Citgo sign that’s presided over the city skyline since 1940. Although that structure originally got its glow from neon, the company later opted to “upgrade from using neon tubes to LEDs” when it was restored in 2005.
Signs worth saving can’t save themselvesImage courtesy of Skillshots
Even the most beloved historic building or sign can be threatened with destruction. Again, these structures might require expensive upkeep or repairs, costs that a business might not want to shoulder.
Buildings often change hands, but often the signs don’t — not every company is like PepsiCo, which included a provision in the sale of its building that ensured the continued existence of its famous sign under new ownership.
A new company moving into a space might not want to be associated with the past, and in some cases, keeping an old sign could mean less space for the current business to advertise its name or logo. Many cities have laws that only permit a certain amount of signage per business.
Some municipalities, however, have what are known as “sign-bonus” regulations, meaning that the space used by the historic sign isn’t counted against a company’s overall sign space allotment. Thus, keeping a historic sign doesn’t mean the new owner can’t also put their name on the building.
“Increasingly, however, communities are enacting ordinances that recognize older and historic signs and permit them to be kept,” the NPS says, adding that it “encourages this trend.”
It behooves many businesses to keep these vestiges of the commercial past, if they can, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their own messaging. Heck, it can make them appear cool and trendy to have retro signs.
Take another recent example, a former Boeing plane factory that’s now used by Mercedes-Benz as a production facility in Long Beach, CA. As part of the purchase and sales agreement between Boeing and the new owners, the new owner is required to maintain and operate a “Fly DC Jets” sign because of its “historical significance,” The O.C. Register reported at the time.
Again, the NPS agrees, noting that while it can be difficult for some companies to do so, “keeping the old sign is often a good marketing strategy.”
“It can exploit the recognition value of the old name and play upon the public’s fondness for the old sign,” the NPS says. “The advertising value of an old sign can be immense. This is especially true when the sign is a community landmark.
What will we save for the future?Image courtesy of google maps
Looking around today, it might be hard to imagine that the Abercrombie billboard you see on your way to work every morning could someday become a treasured community landmark, or that a future neighborhood preservation group might rally to save an Arby’s sign from the wrecking ball. But because it can take about 50 years for a sign to even become considered historic, there are some that are just now coming of age.
“I think there are plenty of them that are still out there,” Rispoli says. “I think they’re hiding around us every day,” she adds, citing Hollywood’s “abundant collection of signage” from the ‘60s and ’70s that people are starting to think about what they mean, and what to do with them.
Schwartz isn’t so sure, saying the current advertising movement is “too digital,” what with billboards that can flash a different ad every eight seconds.
“I don’t know that a digital sign would necessarily become historic, but you never know,” she adds. If it can “impact the community in such a way that they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really love that sign, and it speaks to me, and it reminds me of this area,” then “yes, I think there could be future signs” that speak to people 50 years from now like signs from 50 years ago speak to us today.