The Light Brigade : Vintage Neon Signs Are Restored to Bring Back Glow to Blighted Area

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After more than half a century of darkness, a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard is once again bathed in the glow of neon light.

Mayor Richard Riordan flippeda switch Thursday evening illuminating 25 restored neon signs atop hotels, apartment buildings and a theater that line the historic Wilshire corridor just west of downtown Los Angeles.

City officials, business owners and residents hope this will help spark an urban renaissance in the MacArthur Park area--known as one of the most dangerous in the city, and less known for a rich, often forgotten history.

"We feel the change. We can really feel the change," said John Garibian, owner of the Wilshire Royale Hotel. Two blue and yellow signs on the roof spelling out the name of his hotel are among those now shining in the night.

Other restored signs include a giant "P" on the Piccadilly apartment building and the names of the Westlake Theatre and the Bryson apartment building, made famous by the writings of Raymond Chandler. Most of the signs highlight the name of their building.

The neon restoration effort was headed by Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department. "It's an attempt to bring magic back to the corridor," Nodal said. "This city is full of neon. They are really a forgotten historical feature of L.A."

Nodal has been working on restoring the rooftop signs that dot the skyline around MacArthur Park for a decade. He became interested in the signs, most of them in disrepair, while he was director of the MacArthur Park Public Art Program in 1980s.

"MacArthur Park is a very historic area but all it does is get bad press and bad attitudes," he said. "But you can start to change attitudes if you bring the magic back."

When he began working at the Cultural Affairs Department nine years ago, Nodal brought his ideas about rooftop neon signs with him. As a sort of quick trial, six signs were immediately restored.

"This is a very ephemeral project. It was hard to get people to understand when you can't even see the lights until they are turned on," Nodal said.

The signs were in terrible shape, Nodal said, the glass tubes were cracked and discolored, the wiring was woefully outdated and the scaffolding was rusted through.

Much of the refurbishing was handled by Ray Neal, owner of Standard Electrical Services, a Sun Valley-based company that specializes in neon signs. Neal installed new tubes, reinforced scaffolding and rewired the signs so that they will come on automatically six nights a week, triggered by a solar-sensitive mechanism.

The restoration has cost the city just over $400,000, Nodal said. "To change the image of a community, that's chicken feed. People will spend half a million just to do a study," he said. The money has come mainly from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and Cultural Affairs Department, which will continue paying the costs of maintaining the signs, Nodal said.

Nodal envisions the neon as part of a renewal of the MacArthur Park area, along with the openings of subway stations due to be completed this summer, turning the Bullocks-Wilshire building into a law library and the new the Korean American Museum.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Michael Webb, a neon historian and author of "The Magic of Neon."

"The whole idea of having lights in the night is very romantic," Webb said. "Hollywood. Broadway. Las Vegas. They are all associated with the idea of having a good time."

Webb said that Los Angeles was the first city in the United States to have neon signs. In the early 1920s, a Los Angeles automobile dealer who sold Packard cars commissioned two signs from Georges Claude, a Parisian and pioneer in the field. The signs, which no longer exist, were displayed on Wilshire Boulevard.

"Reputedly, they stopped traffic," Webb said.

"Neon is a very durable and low-cost form of light," said Webb. A neon light is made by bending a tube of glass over a flame. Electrodes are attached to the ends of the tube and then air is evacuated from the tube, Webb said. An inert gas, such as neon, which glows red, or argon, which glows blue, is pumped in and the glass tube is sealed.

Neon quickly became the rage and remained a popular form of advertising for several decades, Webb said. "Neon became the hippest thing in L.A. and in the country," Nodal said. "It became a symbol of modernism."

Dozens of rooftop signs that sprang up on the chic hotels and theaters along Wilshire earned the boulevard its nickname--"the neon corridor."

But as World War II began, most of the signs had to be turned off because of blackouts due to fears of air raids. Few were ever turned on again.

"After World War II, fashion changed and neon went out of favor," Webb said. The electricians who had been maintaining the signs retired without passing down their craft to the next generation, Webb said.

The outmoded signs remained on the tops of the buildings simply because "it was just so expensive to take them down," he said.

The relighting has encouraged people who live and work along Wilshire.

"I think this will brighten up the area, not only in terms of wattage but also the blight in the area," said Peter Becronis, administrative manager of the Asbury, a sparkling white Spanish-style apartment building that has been the backdrop to movies such as "The Grifters" and "When Harry Met Sally."

Two signs located on the east and west side of the Asbury, "are as much a part of the building as the architecture itself," Becronis said.

Bertha Wooldridge, a community activist and owner of Westlake Plumbing and Hardware, added: "I think they will make the community a much, much brighter place."

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