Neon lights up the night again
Dazzling signs give a power surge to streets downtown

By Michael H. Hodges / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- The enormous neon hammer on Woodward across from Orchestra Hall stops them in their tracks.

Stark and simple -- no words, just a highly arresting image -- the moving series of three 10-foot hammers whack-whack-whacks a giant nail into place. Green and purple sparks flash atop the 12-story office building, now owned by a carpenters' union, once the nail is finally driven home. One baffled Canadian wondered whether the sign, installed last summer, meant the building was slated for demolition.

"Isn't it wonderful?" asks Katherine Clarkson, as amused by her friend's confusion as she is in watching downtown Detroit re-ignite with the lollipop neon that used to be the hallmark of Big City, USA.

"Neon," says Clarkson, who's head of Preservation Wayne, guardians of Detroit's architectural heritage, "is almost definitional -- once you see it, you know you're in a city."

And indeed, as if on cue, Detroit in the past year has suddenly sprouted cool-and-hot neon in parts of the city that haven't seen anything but street lights for ages, another sign of the quickening of life below Eight Mile Road. A few neon touches adorn the light show erected atop the Hockeytown Cafe on Woodward. Two tubes of cool aqua and white shoot up the MGM casino's vertical, art-deco sign, while a delightfully hip new animated number for Carl's Chop House winks over the Lodge Freeway.

Nor should any neon enthusiast overlook the retro sign at the newly reopened Gem Theatre, nor the ghostly white, back-lit sign heralding the pure bar room in the old Wright-Kay building just up from the pit that once housed Hudson's.

Time was when Campus Martius, a downtown hub, was a glittering neon universe. Thankfully, not all of Detroit's classic neon was erased in the lean years of the 1970s and 80s, when so much of it vanished nationwide. The old General Motors building still announces itself in bold red neon, as does the Ambassador Bridge.

Greektown is a virtual neon riot, and will be even more so once the Greektown Casino is finished -- neon will top the casino and the Trapper's Alley watertower. And the elegant neon sculpture at the Greektown People Mover station, by nationally known artist Stephen Antonakos, is due to be relit. It was disconnected for casino construction.

Of course, no discussion of neon's comeback can avoid an admiring salute to the Fox Theatre, whose $500,000-plus marquee, completed in the late '80s, restored the great-granddaddy of the art form to its former glory, and almost singlehandedly launched the relighting of downtown.

Ricardo Thomas/ The Detroit News

Across from MotorCity Casino, Carl's Chop House beckons to drivers on the Lodge Freeway with a new sign that's easily one of the most colorful in the city's neon renaissance.

What is neon?

Neon signs were born in 1910 in France, when George Claude discovered that passing electric current through neon-filled glass tubes lit them up in reddish hues. Modern signs employ either neon, which produces the reddish color spectrum, or argon, another inert gas, which generates blues. A drop of mercury is usually added to argon to increase the brightness. By coating the insides of glass tubes with phosphorescent powders and igniting the gases at varying temperatures, neon artisans are able to generate thousands of color gradations. In some cases, the glass itself is stained to make a certain hue more penetrating.

-- Michael Hodges / The Detroit News

As for the neon hammer, the sign represents the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters. "We figured people would see hammers and think carpenters," says council treasurer Ralph Mabry,"and wanted it to be visible from Comerica Park."

Whatever the case, it's attracting notice. Robert Dempster, who designed and built the $155,000 sign, swears he's heard some Wayne State students now refer to that block of Woodward as "the hammers."

The bottom line, says Dempster, is "architecture must be lit. You go to any great city and the buildings are all lit up. Once we light up Detroit, it'll pull far more people downtown."

The benefits go way beyond aesthetics. Author Len Davidson, who just published Vintage Neon, argues that "if you look at one city block with lots of neon compared to one without, you'll see the energy level is way higher in the former."

Ah -- bright lights, big city.

Hard figures on the number of neon signs nationwide don't appear to exist, according to industry leaders, but those numbers are surely up since the 1980s, when the retro boom goosed production after years of scant activity. In 1998, according to Signs of the Times magazine, a trade publication, annual sales topped $2.5 billion.

The big virtue to neon, says Paul Steelman, the architect doing the Greektown Casino, is that "no other light source comes close to neon's brilliance. And neon doesn't spread light to other areas. It's highly intense but specific."

More is coming. Besides the Greektown Casino, there will also be a few exterior elements at Comerica Park, as well as an orange "Tigers" on the scoreboard, says sign designer Jeff Heyn, who owns Planet Neon and did the Fox marquee.

And the MotorCity Casino? Nope -- their sleek white signage is actually plastic lit by fluorescent tubes, the successor technology to neon that nearly wiped out the industry 40 years ago when neon nearly went the way of another endangered American classic, the roadside diner.

"People got away from neon for awhile," says pure architect George Petkoski, who picked the medium for its "soft, halo light," but notes that it's "really been making a strong comeback the last 10 years or so. For a while it was almost a lost art."

Artist Charles McGee moved to Detroit from South Carolina in 1934, and had never before seen neon. "The only light show we had in South Carolina was fireflies," he deadpans.

So it's not surprising that his first glimpse of the Fox was "the most amazing thing I'd ever seen."

Compared to the blandness of illuminated plastic or Plexiglas -- think the Farmer Jack's or Holiday Inn signs -- neon, he says, "makes me happy. There are some pieces -- especially the blue tones -- that make me feel like, Oh, I'm in a dream!"

Neon's eclipse in the '60s and '70s had a lot to do with the cheapness and durability of illuminated plastic; neon tubes are notoriously fragile and require routine upkeep. But it also had to do with what author Davidson calls neon's bad rap, its association with honky-tonk roadside culture heavy on sleazy taverns and go-go clubs.

What was lost, Davidson argues, was irreplaceable, the grand old "neon spectaculars" -- animated signs now banned in most suburbs and many cities, though not, thankfully, in Detroit.

Davidson calls neon genuine folk art, produced in the '30s and '40s mostly by mom-and-pop stores where owners had a long-term perspective, and were willing, unlike national chains, to invest in "unusual, witty neon signs" that were more than just lettering. Like highball glasses with rising bubbles, "Old West" cowboys throwing lassos, or, in the case of the late sign at the China Clipper restaurant at Grand River and Lahser, a rendering of a 1940s-era prop plane.

At their best, Davidson says, neon signs became instant landmarks -- like the Little Lulu in New York's Times Square rocking on a swing and pulling a Kleenex tissue from her pocket, or the Yellow Pages sign on the old Ameritech building next to the Lodge Freeway in Highland Park, whose telephone used to change colors to predict the weather.

But in general, says Daniel Hershberger, Detroit -- the capital of planned obsolescence -- trashed most of its great old neon, unlike some cities like Los Angeles and Rapid City, S.D., where they were enthusiastically preserved.

"Anything that seemed to be old here," says Hershberger -- who heads the Society for Commercial Archeology, and used to teach a course at the Center for Creative Studies called "Gas, Food and Lodging: the Design of the American Roadside" -- "was just taken away." Optimists are crossing their fingers that the lost shall be replaced. For his part, the carpenters' Mabry cheerfully admits he considers their hammers to be a gift to the city.

"It all adds to Detroit's appeal," he says. "More people should do it."

All Artwork ©2005 Robert Dempster. All Rights Reserved.

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