Tucson's past has met the present. No, UA scientists haven't discovered how to travel back in time; instead, local historic preservationists have discovered a way to bridge the gap.
The recent unveiling of Dirk Arnold's "Gateway Saguaro" at the interchange of Oracle Road, Main Avenue and Drachman Street has brought old-fashioned neon back into style.
Since I wrote about neon and Tucson historic signs last October, there have been new developments.
Three iconic signs—for Magic Carpet Golf, Medina Sporting Goods and the Arizonan Motel—are on the restoration hotlist. The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation is holding a fundraiser on Friday, April 30, to raise money to restore and reinstall the signs. One hundred guests will enjoy cocktails on the roof of Hotel Congress and dine in the Cooper Room. Tickets are $125; visit www.preservetucson.org for details.
"In the last 10 years, there's been a groundswell to start preserving and celebrating neon signs," says Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. "Neon signs are really unique and have an incredible power about them. I think (it's because) they illuminate the nocturnal environment and have this midcentury modern aesthetic quality that people really connect to. They are American folk-art sculptures, in some way."
Clinco says the restoration isn't just about the signs. "It's not about celebrating neon; it's about celebrating Tucson's neon. ... With this project, we're trying to restore an essence of Tucson—its post-World War II past."
Clinco explains that from the '30s to the '60s, Miracle Mile was the entrance to the city. Neon signs flashed to travelers on Route 80 and Route 89, which intersected at Miracle Mile and Oracle Road. Travel down Miracle Mile today, and you'll find remnants of the past—such as the Riviera Motor Lodge, the Monterey Motel and the La Siesta Motel. (The Historic Miracle Mile Festival takes place Saturday, April 24. Visit celebratehistorictucson.com for info.)
"We're restoring what Tucson was during the heyday of the roadway," says Clinco. Placement of the three signs hasn't been determined yet, but Clinco says he'd like to see them in the Miracle Mile-Oracle Road-Drachman Street area.
"I really care about our community," he continues. "Tucson should have a city that complements our incredible vistas and horizons."
Before any signs are reinstalled, however, Tucson's sign code must be revised. As of now, historic signs can't be taken down for repair; they have to be repaired in place.
"When the current sign code was adopted 30 years ago, the rules on allowable size, height and (distance) set back (from the road) were changed," explains Jonathan Mabry, historic preservation officer for the city of Tucson. Currently, the "old signs are out of compliance, because they are too large, too high and not set back enough."
In June 2009, the City Council created a committee to develop a program to encourage maintenance, restoration and re-use of historic signs. The group, an ad-hoc subcommittee of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission, has done a lot of work so far. (Visit cms3.tucsonaz.gov/planning/prog_proj/projects/historicsigns for details.)
Mabry says the subcommittee came up with a working definition of historic signs: They are either classic signs built before 1961, or transitional historic signs built from 1961 to 1974. He explains that most classic signs are neon, and transitional signs are usually a combination of neon and internally illuminated plastic panels.
"The date ranges are based on an inventory of the surviving historic signs in the city. ... A database of more than 200 signs that the (subcommittee) identified as worthy of preservation (was created)," Mabry says.
Guidelines for restoration and adaptive re-use are under consideration, as are an official registry of historic landmark signs and the creation of a historic sign district. A final set of concepts will be crafted into an ordinance to amend the sign code, to be presented to the City Council this summer.
"Why is this worth doing?" Mabry asks. "These historic signs are iconic landmarks that connect us to another time and add to Tucson's character."
With all of the discussion about stalled downtown development plans, the effort to restore historic neon signs is welcome news. Clinco and Mabry have received a lot of public support for the project, and Mabry says Tucson is the first city in Arizona to initiate a revision of its sign code to encourage preservation.
Now there's something to be proud of.