The Twin Cities skyline is about to get a little bit brighter, and a whole lot more interesting.
Efforts have been quietly underway to literally flip the switch on history by relighting several of the cities' most-recognized neon signs, using recent state-of-the-art LED lighting technology that makes it cheaper to restore and maintain them.
"These signs are iconic, and really help to tell the story of this place," said Laura Salveson, director of Mill City Museum, which is housed in the ruins of old stone mills along the Mississippi River. "These signs, and what they represent, live in people's memories."
When the museum was established in 2003, pains were taken to preserve the nearby "Gold Medal Flour" signs that sit atop historic concrete grain silos overlooking the river. The effort wasn't cheap. At the time, LED lighting wasn't advanced enough to replicate the look of neon, so the neon tubes had to be restored and the structure rebuilt and stabilized.
In 2000, the project cost about $250,000. General Mills contributed $130,000, and the city of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum, paid the rest. General Mills committed $150,000 to maintain the signs for a decade, but that money has lasted longer than expected, with annual operating costs of between $3,500 and $7,300, Salveson said.
Just a block upriver, at the North Star Lofts building near the foot of the Stone Arch Bridge, crews will soon remove a pair of rusting sheet metal stars and corroded red letters that spell "North Star Blankets," marking the location of a once-famous blanket factory, now condos.
Those signs, one that faces the city and another that looks toward the river, are perched atop a tall brick tower that once greeted trains, and now pedestrians, making their way across the Stone Arch Bridge.
"This sign is greatly appreciated by citizens and tourists alike," said Roger Hale, a longtime resident and president of the North Star Lofts condominium association. "This is where the city grew up."
It's been decades since the neon has functioned, and in recent years the signs were lit with simple spotlights. Residents worried that the signs might fall off the building, and there was growing interest in trying to preserve them.
"People who have moved into this building are particularly attracted to the historic nature of this building, and it's something we want to preserve, and that's why we made a big effort to rehabilitate this sign," said Hale.
Condo owners are contributing more than $110,000 to relight the signs, which will be removed, renovated and reinstalled using a grant from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment fund that's worth nearly $250,000. Because the signs are within a historic district and are using state money aimed at preserving historic treasures, all aspects of the plans — including the use of LED — had to reviewed at the state and local level.
The blanket signs should be reinstalled by late summer or early fall, Hale said.
Across the river, work is underway on the restoration of the 30-foot tall Pillsbury's Best Flour sign, which sits atop a red tile silo building connected to the Pillsbury "A" Mill, one of the most famous flour mills in the country and one of three National Historic Landmarks in Minneapolis. The complex of buildings, including the original historic limestone mill building, are being converted into artists' rental housing by Dominium, a Twin Cities-based developer. Dominium's Owen Metz said removing, restoring and replacing the signs with new LED lighting will cost about $200,000. He expects the sign to be re-lit in July or August, and to cost about $1,000 a year to maintain, compared with $15,000 for neon.
A bit farther upriver, there's been significant progress in long-standing attempts to relight the bottle-cap-shaped Grain Belt beer sign, which has been dark for almost 20 years. Earlier this year, August Schell Brewing Co., which brews Grain Belt, said it would buy the historic Nicollet Island sign and the land it sits upon after the company does its due diligence and determines if the sign can be relit. A structural analysis was recently completed.
The family-owned company plans to donate the 1940s icon to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, which will begin raising money to light and maintain the sign after the deal closes. That sign originally sat above the Marigold Ballroom on Nicollet Avenue S. in Minneapolis. It was moved to Nicollet Island along E. Hennepin Avenue in 1950.
At one time, it was estimated that it would cost $500,000 to restore, but LED lighting is expected to dramatically reduce the cost.
Will O'Keefe, real estate coordinator for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, looks forward to a day when you'll be able to drive across the Interstate 35W bridge, look across the river and see the neon colors of a bygone industrial era pulsing against a modern skyline dotted with apartments, condos and office buildings. "You'll know that you're in Minneapolis," he said.
There's new light on the St. Paul skyline, as well. Dominium recently led the effort to replace another landmark sign, this one with a full-scale replica of a big red Schmidt sign that crossed W. 7th Street at the Schmidt Brewing complex near downtown St. Paul. As it's doing at the Pillsbury "A" Mill project, Dominium used federal historic tax credits to convert the old brewery buildings into affordable housing for artists.
Charlene Roise, president of Hess Roise architectural consultants, said neon was once commonplace in the Twin Cities and other urban areas when it was the most effective way to draw attention to your business. Today, even as LED takes over, there's a growing interest in the legacy and craft of neon. Roise said that a neon museum recently opened in Las Vegas, paying homage to what was once a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape.
"It's really important to stop the losses and fix them up so we have them around," she said. "As we're aware at this time of year, there is a lot of darkness — they can really take the chill out of a Minnesota night."
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376