Written by Nicole Possert and Amy Inouye
Old signs are so hot right now. At least on one 10 block stretch of Figueroa Street – part of Historic Route 66 - in Los Angeles’ historic Highland Park neighborhood, where two great old signs (one neon, one bulb-lit) have been restored and re-lit in the last year.
Manning's Coffee Store and Highland Theatre signs, fully restored. (Photos: Martha Benedict)
It all started with a simple idea: start a Historic Route 66 signage district by restoring and relighting two awesome old rooftop signs badly in need of repair. Manning’s Coffee Store sign was renovated and relit last month following the relighting success of the Highland Theatre sign in the spring of last year. These two signs now add to some existing neon signs and the ever-popular “Chicken Boy” attraction to help bring Route 66 back to the heart of Los Angeles.
Chicken Boy. (Photo: Buz Carter on Flickr)
These no-longer-shiny commercial signs were overlooked “ghost” resources located in the largest historic district in the City of Los Angeles. Seeing as Figueroa Street served as U.S. Route 66 from 1931-34 and 66A from 1936-1960, this signage district project was a perfect way to re-introduce Route 66 to the City of LA, re-use and preserve these historic resources, and begin to create an authentic attraction for all of the aficionados, who have been by-passing this important part of the Mother Road.
Nicole Possert, Stu Rapeport, Amy Inouye, Tony Castillo, and North Figueroa Clean Team member celebrating the Manning's lighting last month. (Photo: Martha Benedict)
The restoration projects were a perfect storm of collaboration: a community passionate about place and willing to push the boundaries of historic preservation; a business district’s desire to create a more attractive, distinctive destination to generate retail interest; and advocates for Route 66, neon, and awesome old signs. The project symbolizes and brings together many interests and passions all in one bright shiny package called the Historic Route 66 signage district. This neighborhood effort shows a different way that historic preservation - on a large or small scale – can be a vital community revitalization strategy.
Click through to read more about the history and restorations of Manning's Coffee Store and the Highland Theatre.
Manning’s Coffee Store
Manning’s Coffee was founded in Seattle (Who would have guessed?) in 1908, and expanded their coffee and tea distribution with restaurants and cafeterias throughout the Western United Statesin the 1920s with over 40 locations - 19 in Los Angeles alone. Today the Highland Park sign is the only Manning’s sign left in LA and the sole remaining evidence of the local history of the company. Constructed in 1933, this sign was moved to Highland Park from Hollywood in 1936.
The rusted out sign, pre-restoration. (Photo: Gary Leonard)
It’s unique in the sign world, utilizing a rare combination of neon and opal glass letters. “Manning’s” is red neon and “Coffee Store” is opal glass backlit by light bulbs. The Highland Park location closed in the 1950s and the sign silently sat dark all these decades since. Today it sits above Las Cazuelas, a Salvadorean/Mexican restaurant that reflects the diversity of cultures in the neighborhood. The restaurant’s owner, a key project partner, went a step further by repairing the restaurant’s neon, star-shaped sign, which now contributes even more neon to the emerging signage district.
And mid-restoration. (Photo: Gary Leonard)
The research needed to create an appropriate preservation project uncovered this history as well as the detailed technical approach. The preservation work included cleaning and repairing all the original sign elements except the neon tubing, which had been vandalized. The 22 opal glass letters had been stolen but were miraculously recovered (that’s a whole other fun story), cleaned and reused. This sign was partially funded by the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation cost-share grant program and the National Trust’s LA County preservation grant program.
The Moorish-style Highland Theatre building, now a designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, was designed in 1924 by noted theater architect Lewis A. Smith, who designed many significant LA theaters. Its iconic rooftop sign is perhaps Highland Park’s most visible and beloved symbol due to it amazing size and presence above the tallest building on the street. As part of its restoration, the entire sign was rewired and every one of its 502 incandescent bulbs was replaced.
Counting down at the official re-lighting ceremony last spring.
The initial fundraising concept was to find a sponsor for each bulb for a small donation of $19.24 (Sense a number theme?). Instead, many community organizations and their members got excited to participate on a grander scale, and the initial fundraising effort quickly morphed into groups clamoring to sponsor an entire sign letter - 15 in all. It only took three months to sell out matching-fund sponsors, not the expected prolonged begging and cajoling. The amount of love for the sign and its defining presence for the community was completely underestimated.
Nicole Possert and Amy Inouye are the initiators of the Historic Route 66 signage district. Nicole is a preservation professional, a proud community cheerleader, and resident of historic Highland Park. Amy is a graphic designer, gallerist, instigator of art projects, and mom to Chicken Boy, the Statue of Liberty of Los Angeles.