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Lost Landmarks

In the late 50’s, as a child riding in the backseat of the family station wagon, the grandson and son to sign shop owners, I would marvel at the large roadside sign displays. The colorful moving lights represented a magical world just beyond the window.  I would mark our progress to our destination by their presence, a sign kid traveling through paradise. Sure, I was a biased audience, but what I’ve learned is that many others not so closely associated with the industry share similar perceptions.

So when Peter Hartlaub, contributing reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, ran a feature in the April 22nd Sunday Datebook, “Lost Landmarks of San Francisco”, it triggered a flood of memories. What intrigued me was the overriding majority of the missing landmarks were signs, the very signs that were marvels of creation in my young mind.

Listed in the article were the spectacular factory and corporate facility signs:  Planters Peanuts atop their plant in S.F. with a 25 ft. tall Mr. Peanut, 

the Hills Brothers Coffee sign south of downtown (I remember the smell of roasting coffee as we approached the city that smelled to me like burned toast), 

the nearby Union 76 tower visible halfway across the Bay Bridge, the Hamm’s Beer brewery sign with a 13 ft. tall goblet that would magically fill to the top with amber and white lights, 

and the enormous Sherwin Williams Paints sign in Emeryville that had paint spilling out of a tipping can to Cover the Earth in dripping lines of ruby red neon.

Listed but not gone; the C and H Pure Cane Sugar sign at the south end of the Carquinez Bridge and the Tribune letters mounted on their ornate, 300 foot tall tower in downtown Oakland.

Also included were places of entertainment; the Circle Star Theater along the Bayshore Freeway in San Carlos with its gold, three-dimensional star nestled in a circle 40 feet in the air, the wonderful 52 ft. high x 72 ft. wide Grand Lake Theater sign in Oakland (its 2,800 bulbs still light the Oakland sky each Friday and Saturday night),

even Carol Doda’s sign at the Condor Club on Broadway. Not forgotten were the iconic Doggie Diner heads scattered across 30 Bay Area locations, 

and the Milk Farm sign off of I-80 in Dixon, with a neon and sheet metal cow rocking over the yellow moon. Left out, but not forgotten in my mind would be the Admiral TV animated spectacular at the foot of the eastern end of the Bay Bridge and the Orinda Theater sign shining brightly in the darkness of the wooded, well-to-do suburbs.

What I find remarkable with Mr. Hartlaub’s observations, and those that left pages of comments on the online posting ( ) is how important signs are in the memory of the general populace. Chronicle readers suggested many of the landmark signs listed above. Their remembrances are filled with sentimental affection and lamentations regarding the loss of these displays. In all, there were no disparaging references to these signs.

Indeed, signs are a vital part of our communities, heralding to those passing by the vitality of commerce and quality of life to be found there. Even a child recognizes this. So why is it that communities today have a stated mission to reduce and eradicate signs, replacing yesterday’s spectaculars with a bland and featureless urban landscape? Those that govern most of our communities in America promulgate the homogenization of the visible aspects of commerce when they should be embracing the visible personification of its vitality.

Signs, the spectacular displays of yesteryear, and the void they leave behind once they are removed, is still on everyone’s mind. Skip Moore, President Bill Moore & Associates Graphics Inc.

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