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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: It's a sign of the times: spinning Sputnik and double-dip ice cream cone are important to history

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 12:03 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY – Of all the things she once thought important to save for future generations, a giant double-dip ice cream cone and a spinning Sputnik never came to mind.

Then six years ago, Laurie Bray moved her photography business from Murray to the heart of Sugar House and her ideas about historical landmarks changed.

When she learned that the block behind her shop off Highland Drive and 2100 South was going to be torn down, one of her first thoughts was, “What will happen to Granite Furniture’s Sputnik sign?”

“It’s a classic — people can’t imagine Sugar House without it,” says Bray. “I can’t tell you how many people came into my studio and asked, ‘What are they going to do with the sign?’”

Sputnik fans were relieved when the building’s owner decided to keep the retro blue sign, even though the interior of the old furniture store was gutted until nothing remained but a shell. An office building, shops and restaurants will be built on the empty site, ultimately adding a new modern vibe to the center of Sugar House.

But Bray, 58, is hoping that people won’t forget what made Sugar House special in the first place: a combination of innovation and charm, she says, that can’t be found anywhere else in the Salt Lake Valley. That’s why she started taking long walks through the Sugar House business district in 2006 with her camera to photograph other vintage signs in danger of disappearing.

She has since turned the hobby into an enterprise of sorts, selling hundreds of prints showcasing old signs that have since been lost (Bluekat’s coffee shop, Dean & Gerri’s Hair Styling and Ace Auto Supply) and those that still bring smiles: Snelgrove’s humongous ice cream cone, the bright red heart advertising Carol Pastries and the ever-popular Nu-Crisp popcorn bowl hanging above a shop that has been shuttered for decades.

“People love that sign — the bulbs used to blink on and off to resemble popcorn popping,” says Bray, who recently met me for a Free Lunch of grilled chicken wraps and iced tea at Fat’s Grill, around the corner from the “Sugar Hole” redevelopment project. “Signs like that take us back to a different time and remind us of history and where we’ve been. They’re historical treasures.”

Bray developed an appreciation for animated signs and neon as a teenager, working at her dad’s Taco Time restaurant. “He loved neon so much that he put it out front on the cactus sign and all throughout the restaurant,” she says. “He figured, ‘If you’re going to make a sign, why not have some fun?’”

It’s a philosophy that is lacking today, she says, mainly due to stricter sign regulations. Bray, who serves on the Sugar House Community Council, is hoping to convince Salt Lake City to amend its sign ordinance to once again allow neon signs (they’ve been banned since 1995) and preserve older ones in need of repair.

“As the ordinance is now, if you take an old sign like the Nu-Crisp sign down to fix it, you’re not allowed to put it back up,” she says. That’s why another community favorite — the Smith-Crown vacuum sign — hasn’t been put up at the store’s new location.

“Signs like this create an energy and a vibe that can’t compare to anything from the ‘big box’ era,” says Bray, who also takes photos each Christmas of kids in Santa’s Shack next to the Sugar House monument. “People relate to signs of old Sugar House more than they remember the monument or any of our new businesses. They tie us to the past.”

Bray, who has also amassed a large collection of historical black-and-white Sugar House photos, regrets that she was never able to go ice-skating at Hygeia, eat lunch at the Pine Cone or shop for new school clothes at the old Keith O’ Brien department store.

“I would love to back to the 1940s and take a walk around,” she says. “Since about all we have left of that time are a few old signs, I’d love to hold on to them. Because once they disappear, there’s no going back.”

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

For more Sugar House photos, visit Photography by Laurie SLC.

Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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