People in every American city romanticize their downtowns as places where the neon lights should be bright. But as the bulldozing urban renewal of the 1960s-80s replaced urban theaters and stores with expressways, bland office buildings and parking garages, the colorful night lights dimmed and disappeared altogether.
But there are now concerted efforts underway to bring them back to Cincinnati, especially to downtown and Over-the-Rhine’s Main Street. In the case of the recently revived “TOWER” neon sign at 1203 Main St., that process involves restoring neon signs that had been turned off and left to rot for years. Preceding it in 2017, owners of downtown’s Bay Horse Café at 625 Main St. spent eight months restoring its spectacular Prohibition-era neon sign, which features a trotting horse with legs outlined in cherry red.
Sometimes, as is the case with the current Woodward Theater façade upgrades at 1404 Main St., new lighting includes completely recreating an evocative sign that disappeared decades ago.
Tod Swormstedt, founder of the Camp Washington-based American Sign Museum, sees all this as part of a national trend to preserve and restore old building signage, even if it’s no longer relevant to whatever is now in that location. His American Sign Museum’s website is tracking various projects.
“That’s pretty cool and it’s actually being done across the country,” he says. “The whole trend from the 1960s-70s of seeing signs as blight on the contemporary landscape has been turned around. Now towns and cities are actually proactive in wanting to keep vintage signs on original buildings. That’s a new development.”
Perhaps the most dramatic idea to date for completely recreating a historic sign was given approval Dec. 4 by the city’s Historic Conservation Board. The owners of the Woodward Theater can now revive an illuminated sign that once extended outward from the upper façade of the lovely, Beaux Arts-style landmark.
With a width of 9-feet-1-inch, it will contain the word “WOODWARD” in individual letters, each one lit by a cluster of light bulbs. Such a sign existed on the theater when it opened as a silent-movie house in 1913, but it disappeared at some point long ago. So did the theater, for that matter; it ceased operations in 1933. The building has served various purposes since then until a local group restored it as an events and music venue — that occasionally shows movies — in 2014.
“At the moment, there is no sign that says ‘Woodward’ other than one (carved) in the sandstone way high up,” says Dan McCabe, Woodward Theater co-owner. “We needed a sign but wanted to put one on that’s historically accurate.”
That sign, once it is manufactured and installed, will complement the theater’s brand-new canopy-like copper marquee, which itself is modeled on one that welcomed visitors to the theater in the old days. And that marquee will soon get its own soothing illumination — up to 40 light bulbs will be installed behind milky glass panels in its ceiling.
“At night, there will be a glow from behind the glass,” says Mike Mense, project manager with Urban Sites, the general contractor. (There already are 52 bulbs illuminating the Woodward’s façade elsewhere — 32 along the cornice and 10 by each of two poster-display boxes.)
The Woodward, with support from Cincinnati Preservation Association, won a $150,000 grant last year from the Partners in Preservation: Main Streets campaign to recreate the original marquee and Woodward sign. The Woodward finished eighth among 25 sites nationwide that were vying for a share of $1.5 million in grants for preservation projects. The money comes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Express, National Geographic and the Main Street America program.
To recreate the marquee with historical accuracy, Mense used the W.F. Norman Corp. of Nevada, Missouri, which was founded in 1898 and still stamps designs on copper panels one at a time using antique rope-drop hammers. Kate Schmidt, a local fabricator who works with metal, researched the decorative elements used on the copper.
“The desired effect is for people to look at it and realize what it looked like in 1913,” Mense says. “We hope it strikes a chord — combining a little bit of nostalgia with a wow factor.”
Over-the-Rhine-based Urban Sites also redevelops older properties, including the one at 1203 Main St. that is now called the Tower Building after its restored neon sign. That sign, believed to be from the late 1930s-1940s, projects blade-like from the building’s front façade and is 24 feet tall and 8 feet wide. The letters spelling out “TOWER” descend like ladder rungs, one at a time, on the sides of the sign. At the base is a horizontal black sign that reads, in gold lettering, “FURNITURE” and “David B. Levine.” According to Cincinnati Public Library reference librarian Amanda Myers, Tower Furniture is first mentioned in library materials as being at that site in 1940 and last in 1991.
“As we were doing this project, I kept looking at the sign and noticed some holes there, where neon used to be,” Mense says. “We got the idea (that) this could be really neat, almost like a beacon for this part of Main Street to be on at night — it would really show up.’’
But restoration was far more involved than repainting the sign, plugging it back in and powering it up. The project eventually cost around $25,000; after the Atlantic Sign Company removed it, Swormstedt worked on it with Adam Sands of Elite Customz, who remade the sign’s cabinet, and NeonWorks of Cincinnati.
The restored neon sign, which is now on at night, complements newer illuminated signage popping up along Main Street windows as businesses move in or spruce up. OTR's Aladdin’s Eatery, which occupies a ground-floor space in the Tower Building, recently installed two colorful neon signs in its front windows — one reads “eat good eat healthy” in white script surrounding a turquoise “OPEN.”
And Mense is discovering an additional benefit of saving the sign. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments on it from younger people, and that kind of surprised me — they say the sign is cool and ‘we appreciate you guys keeping it around and lighting it back up.’ That was nice to hear.”