For Charlotte signs, old is the new ‘new’

For Charlotte signs, old is the new ‘new’

CHARLOTTE, NC (Katherine Peralta/The Charlotte Observer) - When you're driving up South Boulevard, right near the Tremont Avenue intersection, you may have noticed that the retro-looking, imposing 6-foot sign for Tyber Creek Pub has been conspicuously down for weeks now.

Charlotte has been chided by longtime residents for tearing down its historic elements to make way for shiny new development. But one way businesses look to preserve the city's history is through keeping and rehabilitating old signage.

As its latest project, the longtime Charlotte firm SignArt has been working to restore the 30-year-old Tyber Creek sign to its former glory, including by adding new light bulbs, replacing its graphics and giving it a fresh coat of paint. The sign is supposed to be reinstalled this week.

Juxtaposed against modern-looking developments and sparkly new buildings throughout Charlotte, original signs like Tyber Creek's are being refurbished. They are a way to preserve businesses' past, and they also tug at customers' sense of nostalgia – despite the fact that the city continues to change rapidly around them.

"With new developments and construction ... there's this sense of trying to create a brand identifier with a new building by using an existing sign. It's different and creative," said John Kincheloe, an architect with LS3P in Charlotte who serves on the Charlotte History Museum's board.

SignArt, which has been around since 1910, is responsible for many of the restored signs throughout the city. Tyber Creek wanted its sign to remain true to the era representing the old 85 trolley, according to Alan Capps, who has handles SignArt sales. (Tyber Creek could not be reached for comment.)

The firm's other well-known rehabs include the signs for Reid's Fine Foods, Ratcliff's Flowers, JFG Coffee and the Park Road Shopping Center.

Those and others in Charlotte that resemble 1950s roadside diner signs are famous for their neon lighting, big fluorescent bulbs and their size. City regulation and zoning requirements prevent some of those large-scale signs from being built anymore, Kincheloe said.

"As we move further from the neon era and the excitement of suburbia that so many Americans felt in the 1950s and 1960s, people are looking back on that time with some fondness," said Tom Hanchett, a historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

Hanchett describes the 50-year mark as the "magic year" when people stop thinking of historic elements like signs as outdated, and start seeing their value instead.

"I can remember when I first became interested in historic preservation in college in the 1970s, 'neon' was a bad word," Hanchett said. "In the 1970s, (neon signage) was about 20 years old, which is when people look down on almost anything as old fashioned."

Perhaps SignArt's most prominent fixer-uppers were the beloved JFG Coffee sign (dating to 1964), which was removed from the Interstate 277 loop in 2009, refurbished, then later re-erected at the NC Music Factory before being sold on Craigslist last year. Another is the 1929 Ratcliffe's Flowers sign that was put back up on South Tryon Street after its building was moved about 17 years ago.

"People want to remember the way it was then, even though everything else is changing. They want people to see it and remember the way it was," said Randy Souther, manager of SignArt.

There isn't a strict playbook for bringing signs back to life, Souther said. Because each is decades old, it takes care to take the sign down, sand it, replace its bulbs and its wiring that time may have ruined, and repaint it. SignArt employs about 50 people to manufacture and refurbish signs.

The Park Road Shopping Center, which Hanchett describes as the "first large suburban shopping center in Charlotte," was packed with hometown businesses when it opened in 1956. SignArt did the LED light replacement for Edens, the Columbia-based firm that bought the center in 2011 for $82 million. Edens has since undertaken extensive renovations and brought in new tenants.

"The sign is an integral part of the center. The reason for the redevelopment of the center as a whole was to restore the look and feel of the center to its origins," said Lyle Darnall, managing director of Edens, which also owns Atherton Mill and Kenilworth Commons.

Around Charlotte, other rehabbed signs are popping up around new development (although SignArt isn't handling all of them.)

The Harris Teeter that opened last month on South Boulevard, for instance, has exterior signage that uses the original logo the grocer had when it opened its second-ever location in that spot in 1952. "As a Charlotte-born brand, we love any opportunity to bring back the nostalgia our 1960s customers feel when thinking of our brand," a spokeswoman said.

The famed Queen Park sign towered over South Boulevard for nearly 50 years starting in the early 1960s, then was rehabbed and now sits atop the new Queen Park Social entertainment facility that's housed in a 1962 warehouse on Yancey Road.

Others are still awaiting their fate. The Athens restaurant sign, for instance, remains in storage at the Levine Museum, and the plan is to have it restored, a spokeswoman said. The popular 24-hour restaurant was torn down in 2006 to make room for expansion at Central Piedmont Community College.