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Bright Lights Beckon

See four decades of Saginaw's historic neon advertising signs in Old Saginaw City

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

Inside, outside, and around the new Ippel's building at Michigan and Court streets, in the Old Saginaw City Historic Sign Park, eight renewed 1930s-1960s neon advertising signs from past Saginaw businesses add new urban vitality and beckon to share their histories.

Neon advertising signs began arriving in Saginaw in 1927 or 1928, says Saginaw historian and preservationist Thomas Mudd. That was only four years after a Los Angeles Packard dealer purchased America's first two neon signs from the Claude Neon factory in Paris-and 15 years after the world's first neon advertising sign sold in Paris in 1912. "Neon really took off during the Depression," says Mudd. "It's so compelling; it jumps right out at you!" Neon's popularity, however, began declining in the 1940s.


NEON IN THE 1920s AND 1930s

In the Roaring Twenties and era of electricity, a new mass culture formed, and consumerism grew. Glowing neon signs-nearly each one unique then-attracted shoppers seeking new radios and electrical appliances. During the Great Depression, Saginaw storeowner Julius W. Ippel added a neon corner sign to the exterior of his high-end department store in the Merrill Building.

1935 IPPEL'S SIGN

Owner then: Julius W. Ippel
Location: Southeast corner of Michigan and Court streets
Style: A 22-foot-tall sign, green and yellow
Signmaker: Artkraft, Lima, Ohio
Restoration and installation: Barrett Sign, June 2006


The Ippel's sign hung until 2002, when fire destroyed the 134-year-old Merrill Building.


NEON IN THE 1940s AND 1950s

By World War II, few neon artists remained. The one-of-a-kind neon advertising signs disappeared as mass production and standardization increased, and television advertising grew. Plastic shadowbox signs with fluorescent lighting, such as the Sebald's Bakery sign, now in Ippel's lobby, were promoted. Neon was largely reduced to use in vacuum-formed letters, as shown in the Buggia, Perkins, and Whitehead signs also in the Ippel's lobby. Notable Saginaw neon designers from this period included Thomas Wright/Zenith Sign Co.; Bob Bussler, who apprenticed under Wright; and Barrett Sign.

1944 BUGGIA'S GROC. SIGN

Owners then: Dominic and Perrina Buggia
Location: 122 Malzahn Street
Style: Glass tubing/neon-shaped words
Signmaker: Unknown
Installation: Barrett Sign, Saginaw, June 2012


Neighborhood groceries like Buggia's faded away as supermarkets expanded.


1945 LASALLE COCKTAILS SIGN

Owner then: Nick Magas
Location: 108 S Washington Avenue
Style: A 4-by-19 sign, black and white with pink and green neon tubes
Signmaker: Zenith Sign Co., Saginaw
Restoration and installation: Barrett Sign, October 2012


Greek restaurant and cocktail lounge owner Magas commissioned fellow Greek Thomas Wright's Zenith Sign Co.


1946 MOONEY'S RONA BRAND ICE CREAM SIGN

Owner then: John J. Mooney
Location: 1312 Gratiot Road
Style: A 33-foot-long sign, bright blue with pink and white neon tubes
Signmaker: Zenith Sign Co.
Restoration and installation: Barrett Sign, May 2009


Initially a butter plant in 1927, Mooney's expanded to sell ice cream in Michigan. (Mooney's ice cream is available at the Court Street Grill, in the Ippel's building.)


1948 WHITEHEAD MUSIC SIGN

Owner then: Alpha S. Whitehead
Location: 215 Federal Street
Style: Glass tubing/neon-shaped blue and red letters
Signmaker: Unknown
Installation: SignTec, September 2011


One of Saginaw's earliest music stores. Whitehead was known as "the Mother of Musicians" or "Ma."


1957 GABLES MOTEL SIGN

Owners then: Roland and Lettie Hebeler
Location: 2904 E Genesee Street
Style: Red and green neon ground sign
Signmaker: Unknown
Restoration and installation: Barrett Sign, June 2012


The first Saginaw motel, named for popular Coral Gables, was located across from the main gate of the Saginaw County Fairgrounds.


1958 BRENSKE PLUMBING SIGN

Owners then: Donald and Ione Brenske
Location: 531 W Genesee Street
Style: A 20-foot-tall neon leaky faucet sign with six water drops
Signmaker: Zenith Sign Co.
Restoration and installation: Barrett Sign, November 2010


The Brenskes thought of the clever design. The restored sign was recognized in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Preservation Magazine.


EARLY 1960S PERKINS CURTAIN LAUNDRY DRY CLEANING SIGN

Owner then: Stella Rogalski
Location: 916 Gratiot Road
Style: Glass tubing/neon-shaped green, orange, and pink letters
Signmaker: Unknown
Installation: Barrett Sign, April 2010


Established at 13th and Perkins streets, Perkins specialized in table linens, draperies and heirloom clothing.


NEON SINCE THE 1960s

By the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal often resulted in neon bans. Steve Jordan, owner of Barrett Sign in Saginaw explains that neon shops dwindled, but repair and maintenance continued. Neon tubing is still used in many of today's large business signs, such as Walgreen's. "But, working with fragile neon can be difficult and costly," says Jordan. LED is attracting attention as a replacement, but its color is harder to control.

Neon now attracts increasing attention from historians, cultural preservationists, artists, architects, and others. "Exposed tubing is beautiful," says Jordan. New signs are being built too. Jordan shares that vintage-look neon signs were recently created for the Scottish Inn in Saginaw and The Rustic Inn in St. Charles.


Author note: This historical perspective is part of a two-piece feature relating to Saginaw's Historic Sign Park. An accompanying article, "Long Aglow: Iconic signs shine once more in Saginaw's Historic Sign Park," was written by Jeremy Benson.




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