More than dry cleaning

Last week, workers removed this long-defunct neon sign from its perch atop the dry cleaners on the corner of Prince and Orange.  As architectural losses go, this one wouldn’t be too lamentable, except for one sad fact: this was one of the last vintage neon signs in downtown Lancaster.

An informal LBC survey identified only a handful of downtown neon signs, functional or not, old or not.  Pop Deluxe and Empire Furniture, both on Prince street, still operate neon signs, but neither are very old.  The Firestone station on Orange and Water has two large, freestanding logo signs, but these too probably date from the 1980s or 90s.  A few others, like the former King Theater marquee, still survive beyond the central business district, but the the only other vestige of downtown neon was found tucked away in the surface parking lot across from the Brunswick Hotel, the former site of the Lancaster train station and the future site of the new art museum/bus depot/parking garage (reading “Park Here,” its days are also probably numbered, judging from the earth-movers already on site).

79px-Martha_last_passenger_pigeon_1914park_here

The neon sign could be considered the passenger pigeon of the built environment.  Its numbers were once countless, even in Lancaster.  Photos of King and Queen Streets from the 1940s show a still-familiar streetscape inhabited by a long-forgotten flock of electric typography.  Large vertical signboards hung from many, if not most, downtown buildlings.  Rocket ships, pelicans, globes, and lightning bolts animated the streetscape.

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Other cities have saved, through choice or chance, at least a few token examples of this once exuberant urban phenomenon.  But now in Lancaster, this stratum of the architectural record has all but vanished.  Even the highly-acclaimed facade job on the Watt & Shand building neglected to save that building’s looming, iconic rooftop sign that once stood sentinel over Penn Square.  (An ugly if unsubstantiated rumor has it that the sign was accidentally shipped to the scrap heap only a few months ago, after being stashed in unmarked crates, Indiana Jones-style, in some forgotten warehouse.  Whether it was ever planned to be reinstalled on top of the new Marriott is unknown, but what a missed opportunity.  They could have named the new restaurant “The Watt & Shand” instead of the unimaginative “Penn Square Grille” and left the sign in place.  Talk about good advertising.)

But all is not lost.  While Lancaster has forgotten its neon past, another type of vintage sign survives in somewhat healthier numbers.  Backlit signs are usually considered the bastard children of neon, and today are omnipresent and largely uninspired (two are visible in the dry cleaners photo above).  But among this dross are scattered a few gems, probably from the early days of the form.  They might not be neon, but they too will be missed when they’re gone.

More photos of vintage Lancaster signs, including some neon in the neighborhoods, can be seen on our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/groups/lancasterbuildingconservancy/

Please join and add to the collection!

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