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Tropics sign will be taken down and restored April 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Preservation, Restaurants, Signs.
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Some good news and bad news about a Route 66 landmark.

The bad news is the long-closed Tropics Dining Room building along old Route 66 in Lincoln, Ill., was sold and its sign will be taken down, according to Lincoln Daily News.

The good news is the sign will be preserved and restored after a new home is found for it.

Lincoln Mayor Keith Snyder and Tom O’Donohue of the Abraham Lincoln Tourism Bureau of Logan County made the announcement. The building’s sale went through last week, and its new owner is donating the sign.

According to the Daily News:

The sign at its best was covered with neon lighting. O’Donohue said neon is expensive, and it may take a while to get the money together for the restoration. In the meantime, the sign will be carefully stored so as to prevent any further damage.

The article didn’t elaborate on the sign’s new home.

According to the Legends of America, The Tropics opened in 1950. “Original owner, Vince Schwenoha, served in Hawaii during a tour of duty, so he named his restaurant The Tropics,” the site says.

We’d actually encountered the restaurant open for a short period — as an Italian eatery — about 15 years ago, but it’s been mostly vacant during that time.

(Image of The Tropics sign by calamity_hane via Flickr)

Suburban Chicago county approves Route 66 marketing plan March 26, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Bicycling, Motels, Signs.
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The board of Will County, Ill., recently approved a new marketing plan for a long-overlooked section of Route 66 from Joliet to Braidwood, reported the Southtown Star.

The newspaper said:

There is an “untapped tourism potential” here, and tying all these natural, recreational and historical amenities together is historic Route 66, said project consultant Ferhat Zerin, of Gingko Planning and Design.

“Thousands of people drive here, but do not stop,” she said, as she presented the completed plan to the County Board. Many other towns along historic Route 66 which stretches all the way to California — have capitalized on this theme.

The goal is to encourage tourists to spend a day or two here, visiting the Joliet Splash Park, the Jackhammers, Route 66 Raceway, the historic sites, trails, parks, farms and restaurants.

The plan includes forming a tourism advisory council of city officials, business owners and venue operators, with funding the plan through grants, donations, transportation taxes and fees.

Among the plans to market Route 66 in the region:

  • Adding signs along Interstate 80, Interstate 57 and Route 66 to direct drivers to destinations, plus murals on railroad overpasses.
  • A specific identity and brand name tying Route 66 and Will County.
  • Connecting existing bicycle trails, plus new trails along Route 53, aka Route 66.
  • Adding features at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie such as an observation tower and a 1,200-acre bison grazing area.
  • Implementing Wilmington’s vision for Island City, which includes a kayak course.
  • Creating more iconic Route 66-themed photo ops.
  • More events, such as classic car nights, a Route 66 bicycle race, fishing tournament, and festivals.
  • Developing more hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to encourage overnight stays.

This story is yet another sign that Route 66 tourism has met a sea change in recent years that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The Chicago area, which long has treated Route 66 tourism with mild interest or indifference, seems to be coming around. The 2006 release of the Disney-Pixar film “Cars” seems to have lit the fuse, and the Route 66 Economic Impact Report in late 2011 has led many officials to take a much harder and longer look at Route 66 tourism.

(Image of the Joliet Area Historical Museum sign by ElectraSteph via Flickr)

Fundraising launched for Route 66 billboard museum March 10, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Museums, Preservation, Signs.
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A fundraising campaign has been launched for a planned Route 66 billboard museum west of Oklahoma City, according to an Associated Press report.

AP reporter Kristi Eaton, who’s posted other stories about Route 66 in Oklahoma, wrote:

Kathy Anderson, president of the nonprofit Billboard Museum Association Inc., and others envision the Billboard Museum as an educational and immersive museum along Route 66 near Bethany or Yukon that will house and display unique art and advertising dating back to the late 1800s. An indoor museum will house a variety of exhibits, while an outdoor driving loop will showcase vintage billboard structures and other signs. Buying the undeveloped land alone could cost up to $4 million, Anderson said. [...]

Anderson, joined by Jim Gleason, vice president of the association and a second generation sign-maker, and secretary-treasurer Monica Knudsen, unveiled the museum’s logo and new website at a vintage sign and mural workshop and demonstration this month for about 30 family, friends and colleagues.

Anderson said the group seeks both individual memberships and corporate sponsors. For now, Superior Neon of Oklahoma City is acting as storage for old signs and as a temporary headquarters for the museum’s organizers.

Anderson, by the way, is a former president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.

The group also launched a website here. Memberships start at $25 and range up to $1,000. Donations are tax-deductible. Charter memberships are available, but only through 2015.

This is an excerpt from the first two paragraphs of the website:

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, billboards are an essential part of the U.S. travelscape. Their messages have entertained us and sometimes provoked us. They’ve even been called the art gallery of the American highway. And because they are everywhere, their place in shaping and reinforcing our culture is often overlooked.

The sign industry is undergoing a digital revolution. Techniques such as hand painting, sheet tiling and pasting are fading away. These techniques along with the stories of these pioneers and artists of the billboard industry need to be preserved. The art and messages once showcased on the boards is classic and speaks to a time America is rapidly forgetting. These need to be brought back to the public view.

A mural museum devoted to outdoor advertising exists in Pontiac, Ill. But the size of the Oklahoma museum would be much larger.

It’s an idea that’s worthy — and overdue.

(Image of a billboard on Route 66 in Illinois by Peer Lawther via Flickr)

Long-lost Kingman motel sign resurfaces February 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Motels, Signs.
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A long-lost neon sign from the defunct Brandin’ Iron Motel on Route 66 in Kingman, Ariz., resurfaced on eBay this week.

The seller, based in Mesa, Ariz., says the sign had been in storage in Kingman for 40 years. The 16-by-9-foot sign’s tubing doesn’t work but remains mostly intact.

Starting price is $2,495, and the auction ends Saturday.

According to Joe Sonderman’s book, “Route 66 in Arizona,” the Brandin’ Iron Motel opened in 1953. The motel was demolished remodeled in 2001, and apartments were built on the site. Jim Hinckley’s book, “The Route 66 Encyclopedia,” says access to the motel was restricted when Route 66 was widened through town. It closed in the 1990s, Hinckley said.

Whether the sign had been in storage that long can’t be verified. However, it’s apparent it’s been gone for about 15 years, at least.

Here’s a postcard, postmarked 1969, of the motel from the Illinois Digital Archives.

(Hat tip: Wes Dornsief)

VFW wants to restore Skylark Motel tower and neon February 16, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Motels, Preservation, Signs.
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The Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 2482 will apply for a grant to restore the tower and its “neon scene” of the former Skylark Motel in west St. Clair, Mo., according to an article by The Missourian.

The VFW post, which uses the motel at 1087 North Service Road West as its headquarters now, is applying for a cost-share grant from the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and received a letter of support for the project from the city.

The total cost of the project is estimated to be about $44,000. The grant would fund half of that. [...]

If the grant is approved, the restoration project would include tuckpointing of the tower, replacement of all the glass blocks in the tower, restoration of the neon inside the glass portion of the tower, restoration of the neon striping around the roofline and neon installation of the works “Skylark” on the west side of the tower and “VFW” on the east side where the word “motel” formerly was.

You can see what the property looks like now, via Google Street View:


View Larger Map

A 1980 photo of the motel by Quinta Scott from her excellent “Along Route 66″ book can be found here.

The VFW has owned the property since 1993. According to the city proclamation, Robert Johnson and his father, Charley, opened the Skylark Motel in 1951:

“The most exceptional aspect of the motel architecture was the art deco style, glass block tower on the front of the main building,” the information states. “This tower was spectacularly illuminated at night with multicolored neon lights located within the tower. The tower’s light would spill onto the white stucco of the main building, creating a beautiful abstract splash of color.”

The motel was perched on the top of a hill so that at night when the tower was lit, the light could be seen for miles around.

Adding to the neon scene was striping around the perimeter of the roofline, the word “motel” on each side of the tower and a big neon sign at the front of the property, which is now gone.

Joe Sonderman at 66Postcards.com reports the Johnsons once ran Johnson’s Mo-Tel (aka Art’s) in St. Clair before building the Skylark.

(Vintage image of the Skylark Motel via 66Postcards.com)

U-Drop Inn neon lights are back on — in LED February 12, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Gas stations, Preservation, Signs.
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The Facebook account of the historic U-Drop Inn gas station in Shamrock, Texas, recently announced the long-awaited installation of LED neon has been completed and the lights are on.

According to the page, the neon will be on from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly, although I’m certain the “lights on” time will be adjusted later in the year for when days lengthen and sunset arrives much later.

Also, the page said the “Conoco” sign and other signs on the building will undergo touch-up painting in the coming weeks.

We reported in August the city would swap out the Route 66 landmark’s storm-vulnerable neon tubing for more durable and energy-efficient LEDs. A hailstorm in May destroyed much of the neon.

City manager David Rushing became convinced to make the switch because “you can’t tell the difference” between traditional neon lighting and the new LED neon, plus all of its long-range cost benefits.

Frank Gifford of rt66pix.com said in an email:

“… Most people will be fooled. It’s awfully close in intensity and quality of light output, and how it plays off the scalloping.  I’m impressed!”

(Image of the U-Drop Inn on Jan. 30, 2014, via its Facebook account)

Another sign painter with a long history on Route 66 January 27, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, People, Signs.
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A few years ago, I tracked down Rudy Gonzales of Tucumcari, N.M., who hand-painted signs along the Route 66 corridor in the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico for five decades.

Another sign painter has operated along Route 66 for about as long in eastern Arizona. According to an article in the Arizona Journal, Severo Barela of Holbrook, Ariz., now 84 years old, has hand-painted signs and billboards in the region since the late 1950s.

If you’ve never heard of Barela, you’ve probably seen his handiwork. The article details it nicely:

His work was featured on sign boards, billboards and buildings of Babbitt Brothers, the Phillips 66 station, Hatch’s car dealership, Heward Motors and “various restaurants in town,” including Joe & Aggies, Romo’s, Tom and Susie’s, the Holbrook Pizzeria and Jalapeño Poppers, among many others. His work for the Butterfield Stage Company can still be seen on the large billboard located at the intersection of Navajo Blvd. and Hopi Drive. He also worked for such well-known Route 66 businesses as Jack Rabbit and Ortega’s. [...]

Asked about his work at Jack Rabbit, Barela said he did some painting there when the business was owned by state senator Glen Blansett.

Barela said Jack Rabbit’s famous “Here it is!” sign was already in place for many years before he did some work there, “but I did touch it up,” he said.

Many of the other tourist attractions Barela did sign work for are still around, such as Geronimo and the Painted Desert Indian Center.

In Holbrook, one of Barela’s most visible projects is the Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd. south of Hopi Drive. Barela painted all the dinosaur statues that fill the yard of the shop, as well as the large dinosaur mural, all the small signs for the shop and yard, and the caveman family with cutout faces, where tourists can pose to get their pictures taken.

Barela said a lot of the demand for his work dried up with the arrival of vinyl printed signs. His son, Mike, has taken over much of the business, and includes hand-painted and vinyl signs. Severo also is teaching his grandson, Jimmy, the trade.

(Image in 2003 of the Rainbow Rock Shop in Holbrook, Ariz., by Kai Schreiber via Flickr, all painted by Severo Barela)

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