Future of iconic Tucson signs weighed

By Rhonda Bodfield

Arizona Daily Star

Published: Thursday, May 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sal Zagona Jr., owner of Caruso's , poses for a photo outside the restauranton April 28, 2011 in Tucson, Ariz. The neon sign in front of the restaurant dates back to the 1950's and was last repaired sometime in the 90's.

Arizona Daily Star, Kelly Presnell) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

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TUCSON, Ariz. — When history buff Carlos Lozano rolled into town 25 years ago, he was struck immediately by the neon signs along Miracle Mile and Oracle Road.

"They're just so magical," he said, noting they expressed a cheerfulness and exuberance about life that in some ways modern culture has lost. "I knew when I saw them that there was something special about Tucson."

Decades later, about 75 percent are gone. No longer does a Godzilla-sized Marilyn Monroe entice travelers to a motel. The Ye Olde Lantern sign no longer lures Tucson foodies to one of the area's fanciest restaurants in its day. Some have been destroyed. Others have been snapped up by collectors or hawked on eBay.

Most of those remaining are at risk. And Tucson is diminished because of it, Lozano said.

The city's sign-code committee is now going over a proposed change in the law that would make it easier to save historic signs, but at its last meeting the group failed to agree on a recommendation to send to the City Council, instead scheduling a follow-up meeting next week.

When Tucson updated its sign code, many old signs were too big, too tall or too near the public rights-of-way to meet the new criteria. They were allowed to remain, but if they ever came down, even for repairs, they couldn't go back up. Also, if the business changed use, the sign would have to come down.

Advocates point to the rusted-out, badly-aged "diving girl," who, for 65 years, has beckoned visitors to the Pueblo Hotel and Apartments' swimming pool as the poster child for sign purgatory.

She's flat illegal since the use of the building changed to a lawyer's office. The city's sign code administrator, Glenn Moyer, acknowledged that, technically, if an administrator took over who was not sympathetic to historic signs, the diving girl — and any like her — could be ordered down.

Business owners often sacrifice to keep the signs. Since diving girl takes up all of the business's allotment for signs, the Piccarreta Davis law firm can't put its own sign out front. It still gets inquiries about vacancies. Like many older signs, restoring it would be expensive, but the law firm is willing to do it, if only it were allowed.

Likewise, Steve Fenton, who owns the long-empty Reilly Funeral Home on East Pennington Street, says he'd love to fix up the vintage 1920s neon sign that is original to the building.

"That sign is an integral part of the history of that building," he said. Fenton said he's unable to say how much work the sign will need, because to date it's been a moot point.

"Historic signs are part of the historic fabric of Tucson, so it's only logical that we should try to keep them in place," Fenton said.

Bob Vincent's Southwest Animal Health on North First Avenue stands in the shadow of a large boot, outlined in neon, with a fluorescent orange spur, which has marked the entrance to the business complex for more than 50 years. When it's fixed up, it can be seen from blocks away, he said.

It worked when he moved in 17 years ago, but has fallen into disrepair. "I hate to see it all dilapidated," Vincent said. "It makes my business look bad."

City leaders, acknowledging the role the distinctive signs played in the rise of the Oracle-Drachman corridor, even put a 30-foot-tall neon sculpture of a saguaro in the median at the gateway of the old tourist court strip, as an homage to its history.

Still, the wheels of government turn slowly. It's been two years since the City Council turned the job over to an ad hoc citizens' committee in June 2009.

The group identified about 200 signs that might qualify as historic. Since then, they had many a spirited debate about what criteria to use to keep out signs without historic value, said Jonathan Mabry, the city's historic preservation officer.

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