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
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