Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Historic Landmark Signs: Should Tucson preserve its neon heritage? (video)

Today, the corner of Speedway Blvd. and Country Club Rd. is much less cluttered with signage than it was in 1970 when the “ugliest street in America” photo was taken. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

Tucson’s stringent 1980s sign code (plus multiple street-widening projects) have done much to clean up the billboards and over-sized signs on our streets, but every good law can stand some refinement from time to time.

Under the sign code, if you have a non-compliant sign and you want to take it down to fix it, you can’t put it back up. Also, if the property is sold, and the new owner wants to put a different type of business in that location, the non-compliant sign has to be replaced (although they can ask for variances).

Speedway Blvd. was dubbed the ugliest street in America by Tucson’s mayor. Life Magazine published this photo of the corner of Speedway Blvd. and Country Club Rd.in 1970 to prove the point.

The Simonize Car Wash at Speedway and Country Club has incandescent lights and part of it is non-rectangular. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

The Loft Cinema on Speedway Blvd. has incandescent lights, a period design, and a partially non-rectangular shape. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

The Buick dealership on Speedway Blvd. has five over-sized signs and the biggest American flag in Tucson, but signs like this one have most likely been altered too much to comply with the transitional sign guidelines. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

In the current code, there are no provisions for retaining and fixing non-compliant signs that may be deemed historically or culturally important– part of Tucson’s sense of place. (An unintended consequence of this is the preponderance of empty sign shells and broken neon around town.)

For two years, a group of Tucson preservationists has been working on an Historic Landmark Sign Amendment to the Tucson Sign Code. This amendment defines two sets of signs that may be able to qualify as historic: Classic Historic Landmark Signs (those built before December 31, 1960) and Transitional Historic Landmark Signs (those built between 1961 and 1974, inclusive). It also provides guidelines to define historic. Besides age, the technical guidelines include: historic design motifs (exposed neon or incandescent bulbs), materials and construction from the time period, and non-rectangular shape. In addition, there are aesthetic guidelines which emphasize the cultural or historic importance of the sign and address whether or not it has been changed too much already to be deemed historic.

Although the city doesn’t have an official, public list of signs that potentially could qualify as historic (if the owner wanted to apply for that designation and come up with a Treatment Plan), an unnamed city administrator shared a draft map of sign locations with The Tucson Progressive. The map was shocking, actually. Marked in green on the map are approximately 85 pre-1961 signs (mostly around Miracle Mile and down Stone Ave. through downtown and into Armory Park). Marked in yellow on the map are another approximately 125 transitional signs spread around town but with a large concentration on Speedway Blvd. — 20+ signs between Tucson Blvd. and Wilmot Rd.

The photos at left represent a few of these signs in midtown. They are all about the right age to be considered transitional, and they all meet some of the technical guidelines. The slippery slope of the Historic Landmark Sign Amendment is that with good Treatment Plan and enough arm-twisting during the variance process these signs could be designated as historic by appealing to the Mayor and Council.

Saturday night I shot video (below) from Miracle Mile, down Stone Avenue, and through downtown to Armory Park to capture the old neon that is left. Many of the signs from Tucson’s days as a motor hotel haven are in horrendous shape, and the sign code amendment would help their owners repair them. I support saving Tucson’s pre-1961 neon signs but not the transitional era signs; I would also support a ~1965 cut-off date. Opening up an historic designation to signs from Tucson’s ugly days could leave us with many unintended consequences.

At the Tucson City Council Meeting on June 28, 2011, the Council will hear public comment on the Historic Landmark Sign Amendment. If you have an opinion, write or call the Mayor and Council or better yet, show up to comment at tomorrow’s meeting.

[tnivideo caption=”Neon Tour of Downtown Tucson” credit=”Pamela Powers”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K37aLKooMwM[/tnivideo]

3 comments on “Historic Landmark Signs: Should Tucson preserve its neon heritage? (video)

  1. glennh
    June 27, 2011

    The Loft sign isn’t bad. The other two suck. But, that’s my opinion.


  2. Demion
    June 27, 2011

    Dear Ms. Powers,I think you still need to check your facts and re-read the code. It is incredibly frustrating to read your misrepresented information day after day. In addition to age and the 9 requirements there are two different designations “As is” and “with treatment plan.”   If the sign has lost its character defining details the treatment plan must be created that restores these qualities.  Signs like the Carwash (have you even checked the date of construction) have lost their character defining features and would no be approved “as is.”Second, many of the signs in your video would not qualify under your proposal because of age. The first sign is the Shot in the Dark “Café” sign on Broadway it would not meet the age requirement because it is new. The second sign, the “Tucson Inn Sign” was constructed after 1960 so by your “only pre 1961 advocacy” it would not qualify. The Flamingo Hotel sign (1963) who also be excluded under your criteria as would the “Sahara.”  Or what about Pat’s Chili Dogs Sign that would be excluded because it was constructed in 1962, or what about the Magic Carpet Golf Sign (1971) This is why there is multiple criteria requirements.


    • Pamela Powers
      June 27, 2011

      Since there is no list of signs that could be covered by this ordinance– I asked the city for a list and I looked on your website for one– it’s hard to tell the ages. All I have is a map showing locations and general dates of more than 200 signs that may be covered by this ordinance.  Maybe Tucson should rely on the Arizona Daily Star’s coverage of this issue? Oh, yeah, they haven’t covered it.

      On the nine criteria in the ordinance, the PDF draft from the city’s website includes no “and” or “or” in the section where the criteria are listed, which makes the amendment unclear (ie, does a sign have to meet one characteristic or all?) and open to variance appeals.

      The slippery slope comes into play when businesses ask for variances; one recent City Council decision granted a sign variance that paved the way for a new sign 10 times the allowable size according to the sign code.  

      There has been talk about a compromise 1965 cut-off date. I would support that.  (Yes, I know it’s the Shot in the Dark Cafe; the image went with the song.)


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This entry was posted on June 27, 2011 by in Arizona, City Council, downtown, Politics, Tucson and tagged , , .
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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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