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Vanishing Neon

Chicagoland Region



Significance: Large-scale neon signs have been a staple of the nocturnal American commercial landscape since the 1940s. The principal purpose was advertisement for auto-oriented uses, including restaurants, motels, shopping centers, car dealerships and small businesses. However, the designs of the signs themselves—including bright lights, colors, and geometric forms—are a testament to the art of the neon sign maker as well as to the spirit of their times.

Current Condition and/or Status: Unlike buildings—which can often find new uses—the design of these signs are directly related to their original function. When a business closes, the built-in obsolescence of the sign becomes obvious. Furthermore, their ongoing maintenance can be expensive. Few signs have any official landmark protection and, yet, their contribution to a community’s sense of place often can be quite high. Several Chicago neon signs are protected, but only because they are an integral part of a designated landmark, such as the Allerton Hotel, the Chicago Theatre or Wrigley Field.

Potential Threat: Some memorable large-scale neon signs in the Chicago region have been lost in recent years, including the monumental Magikist “red lips” that adorned various area expressways, the highly ornamental signs lining commercial strips, and numerous smaller-scale signs for area businesses. Several large-scale neon signs in Chicago are currently at risk, including the “Z Frank” auto dealer sign (Western and Peterson) and the “Stars Motel” sign (Lincoln and Kedzie), both of whose businesses have recently closed.

What You Can Do: A few communities have given landmark protection or restoration grants to their most artistic neon, including the Northgate Shopping Center sign (1956) in Aurora, Ill.; a Lincoln Highway commercial business sign in DeKalb, IL; a neon sign district in Portland, Ore.; and a series of neon signs along Route 66 in New Mexico. Preservationists also can urge their local officials to save the “best of the best” signs, based on local sign surveys.


Photos: (Lost) 1-3 Landmarks Illinois, 4 Illinois Historic Preservation Agency; (Threatened) 5-7 Landmarks Illinois; (Saved) 8,9 Landmarks Illinois







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