By Steven Rosen
(From Modernism Magazine, 2006)
It was a warm, lovely October evening in Hollywood. Every quirky, eccentric and beloved 20th Century architectural landmark in the colorful Los Angeles district, from the stack-of-platters-shaped Capitol Records building to the Cinerama Dome movie theater to the hillside Hollywood sign, looked its gleaming best in the clear, fresh air.
As the sky grew darker, people arrived for a cocktail party on the deck of an office building. They were coming to witness the return of a long missing-in-action Hollywood attraction, the Art Deco-designed The Broadway Hollywood neon rooftop sign. It’d been at least 35 years since it last was on – nobody knew for sure when it was permanently shut off.
First lit in 1931, it had heralded a now-closed department store inside the building below it at the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine. The sign had first been turned off during World War II, when Los Angeles feared Japanese air raids, and had only been on intermittently in the 1950s and 1960s. Some at the party recalled how it shone through a hotel window during an old “I Love Lucy” episode.
They ate filet-mignon kabobs and pear-and-gorgonzola-filled philo-dough appetizers, ordered drinks and chatted while a polite pop singer serenaded with gentle romantic ballads. Finally, when night had truly arrived, speakers took the stage and called attention to that still-darkened, monumental neon sign hovering above them on scaffolding to the north. It was time to turn it back on – after all these years.
As part of a remarkable ongoing project in Los Angeles called LUMENS, part-historic preservation and part-public art and inspired by Raymond Chandler’s detective-noir writings about the city, The Broadway Hollywood was getting a facelift and making a comeback.
It was to become the 127th neon (or, in a few cases, incandescent) outdoor sign revived by the program, almost all of them from the heyday of LA neon between the 1920s into the early 1940s. (LUMENS stands for Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs.)
“I’ve driven by the sign for over 30 years dreaming of the day it would glow again,” said David Bohnett, the GeoCities founder whose foundation provided $44,425 of the money toward the $56,925 cost of the renovation. Community Redevelopment Agency/Los Angeles contributed the rest. “This magnificent light is more than a sign, it’s a symbol. It heralds the renewal of a Hollywood we have all been awaiting.”
Once it dramatically flashed on, the decades of neglect instantly evaporated. It was as elegant and retro-chic as a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical, its bright uncluttered lettering almost floating in the nighttime horizon. The word “The” softly glowed in white – its slanted, script-like font featuring a dramatically plunging, 22-foot-high T. “Broadway,” also white and in 10-foot-high lettering, had a bold-faced, double-neon outline that made it as commandingly reassuring as The New York Times masthead. By contrast, “Hollywood,” in streamlined seven-foot-high powder-blue lettering, was as trim and glamorous as a starlet’s waistline.
People gaped, smiled and applauded. “I don’t know about you, but I have goose bumps,” said Kate Bartolo, senior vice president for development of the Kor Group. It owns the sign as well as the now-vacant, 1927 Renaissance-Revival building that it is atop. Kor Group bought it to convert into condominiums; renovation is underway. The project will be called Broadway Hollywood and Kor will keep the sign lit at night at an estimated energy cost of 55 cents per hour.
“Personally, I think LUMENS is the coolest thing the city of Los Angeles has ever done – maybe the coolest thing any city has done,” said Jake Platt, of the non-profit Los Angeles Conservancy preservation organization, to the crowd. Everyone agreed.
Several weeks later, Adolfo Nodal – the father of LUMENS – was sitting on a patio overlooking a 32-acre cornfield, of all things, in a heavily industrial downtown area. Actually, it’s called Not a Cornfield – it’s a temporary living sculpture funded by the Annenberg Foundation to reclaim neglected urban land – and he’s its general manager. He left the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, from where he shepherded neon restoration, in 2000. But he has remained an advocate.
While it’s as removed as possible from the neon commercial signs he has long worked to preserve, Not a Cornfield is typical of Nodal’s interest in championing the artfulness of everyday objects in the urban landscape. “He’s a visionary kind of guy,” said Kim Koga, director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Neon Art, which now administers the LUMENS program. “LUMENS mainly is Al Nodal – it’s been his passion,” added Jerry Miers, a foreman for Standard Electrical Services, which has done the actual work of restoring the city’s inactive and decrepit neon signs.
To Nodal, the lure of neon is history – the history of 20th Century urbanism in Los Angeles. “The signs became a symbol of modernism when they first came in the 1920s,” he said. “It was such a hip thing and everybody wanted to get on the bandwagon and have a modern-looking sign on their buildings.”
Nodal had moved to Los Angeles from Washington in the 1980s to be director of exhibitions for Otis Art Institute, in the shopworn MacArthur Park area of the city just west of downtown along the city’s main east-west highway, Wilshire Boulevard. He also at first lived nearby. “I started reading Raymond Chandler – it gave me a wonderful appreciation for old buildings in Los Angeles,” he recalled. “I started to see them in a different way. There was a passage in ‘Little Sister’ about neon and I started looking up and right at my building, the Ansonia, I saw a sign.” It wasn’t turned on at night, however – most had been off since World War II.
That passage from the 1949 novel read: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.”
Working with artist Alexis Smith, Nodal developed a 1987 test project in which six area signs were turned on. In 1988, Nodal became general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and started working on a plan to relight 50 rooftop signs along Wilshire – mostly once-stately apartment buildings that had once proudly, enticingly asserted their names in neon. “The words they used on their buildings are incredibly beautiful, themselves – the Ansonia, the Asbury, the Du Barry.”
To get building owners to agree, Nodal’s agency offered to pay not only the renovation expenses, but the upkeep and electricity costs for five years. It took several years and about $350,000, but in 1993 some 50 rooftop signs along Wilshire were brought back to life. And the city began to notice the revival of a forgotten era of civic optimism, as well as the graceful, stylized beauty of the lettering of these signs.
According to the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, neon light first was produced in France in 1910, when physicist George Claude applied electricity to a tube containing argon and neon gases and the result was intense red and blue lights. (Other colors are derived from the tint of the glass tubes, which are handmade and bent to shape.)
In 1923, a Los Angeles car dealer purchased and installed the first neon sign in the United States for his Packard dealership on Wilshire. The precise, controlled nature of the illumination seemed more like an artist’s painting than other, messier light sources of the time. It had a galvanizing effect on a city discovering itself. The population was exploding from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.2 million by 1930.
And these boom years corresponded with the Jazz Age, with its taste for decorous glitter and razzmatazz. Los Angeles was at the center of it. “Neon came to Los Angeles in the Jazz Age and it made a statement, along with all the klieg lights that swept Hollywood, the Art Deco buildings, and the car culture, that everything seemed so hopeful,” said Eric Lynxwiler, a Los Angeles urban anthropologist, neon aficionado and co-author of the new book “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles.” “I find a hopefulness and promise in those neon signs we probably haven’t seen since the 1950s.”
Neon sprouted everywhere on buildings, especially on the marquees of the Hollywood and new downtown movie palaces of the 1920s and 1920s. But rooftop signs became especially popular because the city at the time had a 150-foot height limit on buildings, which meant they could make a huge visual impact on motorists at night.
And not just motorists, but also pilots. One of the most important LUMENS restorations was of the 1930 three-sided Bendix sign on downtown’s fringes. It’s a 150-foot tower built atop the old Bendix Aviation Corp. building, with the company’s name spelled out vertically in bright-red letters. The top “B’’ is 25 feet tall and double-outlined, while the others are a still-impressive 10 feet tall.
According to a 1930 article in Signs of the Times trade journal, it originally had a flashing beacon and a neon arrow and marker on the building’s roof to guide pilots to the nearby airport. “It actually had a function – pilots used to line up by it,” said Miers, of Standard Electrical Services.
Turned back on in 2003, for a total cost of $46,200, the sign is now visible for miles. However, Museum of Neon Art’s Koga said no physical evidence of the rooftop’s neon arrow and market was found.
In the post-war era, with L.A.’s large rooftop neon turned off, neon lost its luster as the latest thing. New kinds of outdoor lighting also became popular – backlit plastic signs and fluorescent bulbs, especially. The urban renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s viewed neon as a means by which taverns, tattoo parlors, pawnshops and other tawdry businesses forced their presence on the urban landscape. Suburbia, for that matter, became the exciting future – the older parts of city, itself, like their big neon signs, seemed passé.
That’s where Nodal changed things. Once the Wilshire corridor’s signs were relit, his agency moved on to Hollywood. Actually, The Broadway Hollywood is one of the last of that area’s big signs to be turned back on – others included one of the most difficult projects to date, the twin towers atop Hollywood Boulevard’s Pacific Theater, a 1928 Renaissance Revival movie palace currently used by University of Southern California to test digital projection equipment. Each has 2,000 separate incandescent bulbs. (They currently are turned off; Nodal advocates replacing the lighting system with LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to cut down on the need to change light bulbs.)
“I wanted to fix the signs but I also was searching for a way to make history come alive,” Nodal said. “At that time, I was managing the historic preservation program for the city. I saw all the battles over bricks and mortar, and people not having vision of what history meant. I thought neon is a hip thing, it’s really from L.A. and something homegrown here, so maybe this project can really turn people on about history.”
Under Mayor James Hahn, who took office in 2001 but lost his reelection bid in 2005, the ongoing budget for LUMENS was cut. As a result, new projects were slowed and maintenance ceased. There have been only five new LUMENS-related sign-restoration projects since 2002 – The Broadway Hollywood; the nearby and smaller Hotel Plaza sign featuring multicolored flickering stars; Bendix; and the marquees of two of the glorious old downtown movie theaters, the Los Angeles and the Palace. In addition, in a controversial move, a neon outline was added to a defunct rooftop radio tower downtown.
But parallel private restoration, as well as ongoing support from regional public redevelopment agencies, has picked up some of the slack. The Kor Group, for instance, is also turning the 1930 ZigZag-Moderne-style Eastern Columbia building, one of the most attractive in the city with its blue terracotta cladding, into condos. As part of that project, it last year restored two of the four clocks on the tower, including new neon for the clock arms, numbers and the word “Eastern.” The other two will follow.
In adjacent Culver City, the redevelopment agency, which owned the vacant 1947 Streamline Deco-style Culver Theatre, required new operator Center Theatre Group to restore the neon as part of converting the building to live performances.
The $8 million project – including a $1.25 million city grant – has resulted in almost one linear mile’s worth of white neon being revived on the theater’s marquee, façade and on the 30-foot-tall tower. There, the vertically stacked word “Culver” is outlined in neon while incandescent bulbs flash on and off within the lettering’s borders. Its effect on the downtown area is like an extended lightning bolt. “It really pops out,” said Miers of Standard Electrical Services, which did the work.
Perhaps the most important news is that Nodal says Los Angeles’ new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has agreed to restore enough money to LUMENS in 2006 to fix the ones that have again fallen into disrepair. Nodal, who plans to take part, estimates that will cost about $125,000. And then there are the rooftop signs he never got to that he’d still like to restore. “We did a helicopter survey of the tops of all buildings to see if signs were lying down and there were some,” he said. “And I would say there are another 200-300 signs out there not even mapped that we could do.”
The Museum of Neon Art, meanwhile, also plans to stay involved. And it wants to continue moving beyond rooftops. “We want to brainstorm and see how we can set up LUMENS, we want to keep it with the Museum of Neon Art because it can help it, but we want to get a logo for it, fundraise for it, and somehow make it part of (other) conservancy projects,” Koga said.
“And we’ve been on the brink of this, we’d like to put some of the signs back on the buildings where they were commissioned to be,” she said. For instance, last year the museum was given a long-missing Art Deco-style neon sign that stood above the entranceway to a 1938 Wilshire camera store called The Darkroom. The building, itself, has a nine-foot-high façade designed to resemble a 35-millimeter camera and is so unique it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. While the sign is damaged and without neon tubing, Koga would like to restore it and put it back on the storefront – which no longer is a camera shop. “It’d be exciting to put that sign back on the building,” she said. “Really, that would make the whole building a sign.”