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Bill Rose

None Given, Star Tribune

Recapturing history, one neon sign at a time

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • November 12, 2011 - 7:11 PM

Take someone from 1950 and drop him downtown tonight, and he'd ask: What happened to the signs? Did you run out of neon gas?

Signs of every color and size hung off the storefronts, blared out from the rooftops, crackled and buzzed over movie marquees 60 years ago.

It was an urban language that fell out of favor, thanks to codes that regulated signs and a shift to less-expensive, low-maintenance plastic junk. But the retro appeal of old signs is greater than ever, and thanks to the Internet -- where sites like Flickr or mobile apps like Instagram let people showcase their discoveries -- we have gallery upon gallery of the finest examples of electrified commercial art still in existence.

One skillful curator is Bill Rose, a local photographer you might know as the Recapturist. He shoots signs all over the state and country, researches the history and puts it all up at recapturist.com. What's the appeal?

"They're unique from anything built in the last 30 years. I've always been a fan of aesthetically pleasing design, beautiful fonts -- plus, the signs were just really effective. I wasn't around in the heyday of the signs, but people of all ages are moved by this stuff."

Ever take more than pictures?

"In Staples, there's an old department store, and I saw this old painted Kodak sign behind the store, not really being cared for. A kid was walking by, and I asked him who was the owner of the building. He knew! I called her up, worked out a deal where I bought the sign for 10 bucks. She said to leave the money with the bartender at Lefty's across the street. So now I have the sign."

Of course, Lefty's has a great sign, too. If you're on Hwy. 10, try to see it at dusk -- then catch the sign for The Spot on the way back east. They're here now. They won't be here forever, as Bill knows first-hand:

"A few weekends ago, I did some exploring around town and went by a place in Maplewood called the Northern Aire motel. I had photographed the sign in the past. As I'm driving back past I see they have this plastic sign up there now. So I pulled in, talked to the owner and asked what happened to the sign? Turned out that the cost of maintaining it, the insurance, gets a little unwieldy."

Plus, the owners may not have the same opinion about the retro-cool mystique: "Many of the motels are owned by people who immigrated to this country, and aside from the financial problem of keeping it intact, they may have no connection to this period of American history, no nostalgia."

So down it goes. And then? "I got the name of the company that hauled it away and asked what happened to the signs. For most, they become scrap."

He'd like to find a way to help businesses preserve the signs, or perhaps set up a museum where the roadside citizens can retire. In the meantime, more trips, more pix.

If you wonder whether Minnesotans are too practical to value these signs, take heart: "In general, I've been impressed with the amount of signs still to be found. There's a lot of signs from Minnesota -- some of the best I've ever found in the country."

JAMES LILEKS

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