This is part of my re-posting effort to celebrate the beginning of a new year! Originally posted August 11, 2010.
In general there's always been a lot of interest in old neon signs. But writers and photographers tend to treat them as if they're works of art, picking and choosing the most interesting and intact examples. But for some reason I'm always drawn to the crummiest, most deteriorated signs. In that vein I'd like to focus on just one.
Western and Touhy is a busy intersection in West Ridge. As a pedestrian you feel distinctly second-rate to the cars whizzing past. On the southeast corner is a Baker's Square, on the northwest is Lakeshore Surgery, and on the southwest corner a Marathon gas station. All three have their own attached parking and auto-oriented circulation.
But on the northeast corner is a sad-looking 2-story yellow-brick building with apartments above and commercial spaces below. The assessor dates it at 1928. It has a vaguely English look, castellated, with few gothic stone ornaments. Many of the storefronts along Western have been infilled with artificial stucco. The commercial tenants are typical storefront businesses-- a cell phone store, grocery, computer service, hair salon, etc.
In the 1920s a burst of optimism flung buildings like this to cheap land at the edge of the city and beyond, with the expectation that more development would fill the gaps in between. Of course it didn't work out that way due to an inconvenience known as The Great Depression. Most of the nearby lots didn't develop until the 50s and 60s. And even then it never achieved the density common to older commercial corridors in Chicago.
The sign for the P&S Restaurant has seen better days. Most of the neon has cracked off and the letters haven't been repainted in decades. Rusting chains keep it from swaying in the wind. It's only a matter of time until the steel supports fail and the sign will have to come down. I would like to say that it might be repaired, but I'm guessing that won't be likely.
It's a relatively simple combination of oval, trapezoid, and scalloped band. It wouldn't surprise me if there had been an arrow at the termination of the band pointing to the restaurant. The organization of the information is fairly typical-- name, function, and amenities. If I had to date the sign I would guess early 1950s. The signs in the 40s were generally simple boxes, and the signs in the late 50s became progressively more exuberant. This is not an exuberant sign.
In general, signs like this are evidence of the growing car culture. On the highway it makes sense to have a large, illuminated sign. The speed of the experience and the viewing angles require a sign large enough to interest the driver and give them time to pull over and park. But this format is not particularly functional for a corner building with a zero setback to the street and no associated parking.
Initially I thought that this sign may be a relic of a time when the surrounding development allowed this building to operate as an auto-oriented strip. A glance at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of the area (1937, 1941, 1950 and 1951), showing mostly greenhouses and gas stations, seems to support this. Only as the surrounding areas became built-up with apartments and businesses did the 1920s typology of the building limit the effectiveness of the sign to attract drivers which could actually take advantage of a quick stop at a diner.
But that can't be the entire story, since so many of these signs can be found in areas which have always been densely urban. Auto-oriented development and advertising permeated the commercial landscape after WWII, and there are many good examples of this in Chicago. For my purposes it's not much of a jump to suspect that the old main street businesses would have attempted to present a more modern (neon!) image to the customers they were afraid of losing. When it came time to modernize they didn't choose to paste up gold leaf letters on the storefront.
While the stand-alone auto-oriented businesses could place their sign on a pole out front and go as crazy as they wanted, the traditional buildings were stuck with slapping these signs onto aging structures with a variety of steel connections. Some of these attachments are reminiscent of a torture chamber, and aren't particularly sensitive to existing ornament. As much as I like these signs, there's typically a glaring difference in scale and and an uncomfortable relationship with the building on which they're mounted. That said, I would be sad to see it removed.
I don't normally reference books in this blog, but I have to nod to Lisa Mahar's excellent study, "American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66." This is a brilliant graphic manual for understanding, categorizing, and dating this type of signage.