Columbus Square Downtown Neon Northside Regeneration

Does the Vess Bottle Belong in the Bottle District?

by Michael R. Allen

The Vess Bottle, viewed from the north.

Now that the “Bottle District” — that mass of spread gravel north of our football stadium — is poised to become part of the Northside Regeneration project, perhaps it is time to evaluate the fate of the Vess bottle sign that gave the now-merged project its name. Dan McGuire of McGuire Moving and Storage, the longtime former occupant of a nearby historic warehouse building at Sixth and O’Fallon streets, invented the Bottle District trope in 2006 to market an ambitious mixed-use high-rise redevelopment project designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The Libeskind plans are long gone, and now developers Larry Chapman and Paul J. McKee, Jr. are trying to market a now-cleared site between O’Fallon and Cole streets west of Broadway. What the bottle has to do with the new project is unclear.

Neon North County Signs St. Louis County

“We Knead Your Dough”

Those who love vintage neon signs, good donuts AND puns really love the Country Inn Donut Drive-In sign at 9426 Lewis and Clark Boulevard (just north of Jennings Station Road).
Metro East Mid-Century Modern Neon Theaters

Traces of Route 66 on Chain of Rocks Road

by Michael R. Allen

One of the St. Louis sections of the historic Route 66 is the two-lane Chain of Rocks Road in Madison County, Illinois.  Between Highway 157 at the west and Highway 203 at the east, passing through Mitchell, the modest road has a surprising number of remaining signs and buildings from the Route 66 heyday.  Chain of Rocks Road was part of Route 66 from the start in 1926 until 1929, when the river crossing was shifted from the Chain of Rocks Bridge to the Municipal Free (later MacArthur) Bridge and then again from 1936 until 1955 when the crossing was moved to the new Veterans’ Memorial (later Martin Luther King) Bridg

Starting at the east and moving west, one of the first Route 66 era landmarks is this concrete block gas station on the north side of the road.  The black and white paint checkerboard marks the earliest section of a building that was later expanded.

One of most impressive signs on Chain of Rocks Road is the old Bel Air Drive In sign, which faces an uncertain future.  One of the large letters is already missing, but the sign’s bell still rings out with a swanky mid-century design.  One of the metro east’s largest, the Bel Air Drive In opened in 1953 and could accommodate 700 cars.  Mid-America Theatres built the Bel Air.  The drive-in was so successful that the owners added a second screen in 1979, but times changed rapidly before the theater’s closure in 1986.  Wreckers took down the theater buildings in 1991, and the site is now partly built out as an industrial park. The owner of the land has expressed interest in either retaining the sign on site or selling it, according to a 2007 Belleville News-Democrat article.  Originally, the sign had a channel silhouette on each bell and then incandescent bulbs spelling out the Bel Air name.

The Greenway Motel and the Apple Valley Motel remain in operation despite less traffic on the old Route 66. The Greenway sign is now bereft of its channel-letter neon tubing, but it is well-maintained and retains its historic two-tone paint scheme.

The Luna Cafe to the east pre-dates Route 66, and is located in a sprawling frame building from the 1920s. The sign went up later.  The martini glass takes the eye on a swirling journey along an arrow pointing at the cafe.  Time to pull over for refreshment!

Collinsville, Illinois Mid-Century Modern Neon Signs

Bert’s Chuck Wagon Sign Moving

by Michael R. Allen

An article in today’s Madison County Journal reports that Bert’s Chuck Wagon restaurant has removed its landmark sign and will be reinstalling it inside the restaurant’s new home.

In a turn of rather thoughtless planning, the landmark restaurant’s A-frame Googie building will be demolished for the widening of Illinois Highway 159. Of course, many Metro East cities’ downtowns have suffered when state highways are routed around them. Collinsville at least will still have the highway running through the heart of town.

Neon Signs St. Louis County

Neon Signs at Antique Warehouse

by Michael R. Allen

On Sunday, February 21, the Antique Warehouse hosted a fundraiser for the St. Louis Sign Museum. Guests were able to see the amazing private collection at the Antique Warehouse, which includes numerous neon signs, banners, signs, vehicles, tractors, campers, sewing machines, cash registers, pinball machines and so many other things a list would fill a small book. Greg Rhomberg is the mad genius behind the Warehouse, and has been collecting for years. One of the hallmarks of Greg’s work is thorough restoration of items that require it. In the case of neon signs, that means repainting and re-tubing. Here are a few photographs suggesting the scope of the Antiques Warehouse neon sign collection.

Yes, the Lake Forest Pastry Shop sign is alive and well!

Mid-Century Modern Neon Public Policy South St. Louis

That Donut Drive-In Sign

by Michael R. Allen

The animated neon sign at the Donut Drive-In, 6525 Chippewa Avenue in Lindenwood Park, returned to life on November 1, 2008. Donut Drive-In first opened in 1952 on what was then Route 66, the nation’s “Mother Road.” Many of the St. Louis stretch’s neon signs have disappeared, but not this one.

The owners of the donut shop could not afford to restore the Route 66 icon on their own, but were able to complete restoration using a matching grant from the the Route 66 Corridor Program administered by the National Park Service. The Missouri Route 66 Association was instrumental in assisting the owners with the grant process.

Since its creation by the National Park Service in 2001, the Route 66 Corridor Program has helped allow property owners to act in the public interest when otherwise unable. (Perhaps the National Park Service needs a name that tells people that its noble work is not limited to preserving open space.)

Belleville, Illinois Mid-Century Modern Neon Signs

Harter’s Hobby House Sign Removed

by Michael R. Allen

For decades, Harter’s Hobby House at 1001 West Main in Belleville beckoned hobbyists with its colorful sign, which resembled a blue pin-striped stick of dynamite with a starlight mint-like pinwheel fuse. The sign is no more, having been replaced recently with a simple new sign.

The old sign was a complex metal sign with three plastic back-lit name boards, an enameled body and neon tubing on the pinwheel. The letters in the possessive “Harter’s” were proper cursive fit for business, while the words “Hobby House” had a carefree lettering somewhere between kindergarten script and a typesetter’s mistake.

Where did the sign go? Anyone with information is welcome to post in the comments section or email the editor, who missed the changeover.

Benton Park Mid-Century Modern Neon Signs South St. Louis Storefront Addition

Storefront Addition: California Do-Nut Company

by Michael R. Allen

Yes, the much-mourned California Do-Nut Co. at 2924 S. Jefferson in Benton Park sports a storefront addition. The 1909 Sanborn fire insurance map shows the two-story building as a black smith shop, and building permits suggest that the addition dates to 1920. Here the addition seems to become part of a larger, mid-twentieth-century remodel. The parent building received a coat of stucco, the addition is clad in a Permastone-type material and the enameled neon sign board has an unmistakable modern swagger. The white and green color scheme is also sporty and simple, the hallmark of good mid-century design.

If the donut stands are doing well on Hampton and Watson road, why not Jefferson? Obviously, a little remodeling of that old store is needed, but the end result is an urban version of the roadside snack stand. Alas, a fabled reopening only led to plywood being hung on the storefront.

Downtown Neon

Serving St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The neon sign atop the Railton Residence, originally the Robert E. Lee Hotel, at 18th and Pine streets in downtown St. Louis. The sign frame dates to 1932, when the owners of the Robert E. Lee built it to advertise their hotel. The Salvation Army purchased the hotel in 1939 for use as one of its Evangeline Residences — homes for young businesswomen — and built its sign on the existing framework in 1944.

Alton, Illinois Metro East Neon

Good News From the Jacoby

Press Release from the Jacoby Arts Center in Alton, Illinois:

The Madison County Arts Council, through a generous grant from the Gateway Foundation, will begin renovation of the historic neon sign that graces the front of their building — the Jacoby Arts Center, located at 627 E. Broadway in Alton, Illinois.

“Re-lighting the 2-story Art Deco sign will provide a strong identity for the Arts Center, help reenergize downtown Alton and revive a historic icon,” said Kathryn Nahorski, Executive Director for the Arts Center. “We are honored to receive this grant from the Gateway Foundation — an organization that supports projects including the Great Rivers Biennial, the lighting of the Gateway Arch and Sculpture on Campus at SIUE.”

The building that housed Jacoby’s furniture store for nearly 100 years was donated by the Jacoby family to the Madison County Arts Council in 2004. In 2 years, the building has been transformed into a community arts center, housing a gallery, gift shop and education wing. The current project, construction of three new classrooms, is nearing completion. These new facilities will allow the Arts Council to provide a broad offering of visual arts classes and meeting space for community groups such as the writers’ guild.

The Madison County Arts Council was founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization serving Madison County Illinois and adjacent areas. The Jacoby Center is the largest and most prominent of the undertakings of the MCAC. Other programs include ARTEAST, Community Arts Access, Arts in the Park and Connect the Arts.

The Madison County Arts Council is grateful to the Gateway Foundation for their generous support.