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Bending the Rules

(August 2011) posted on Tue Aug 09, 2011

Saving iconic neon in Tucson


By Robin Donovan

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Glenn Moyer has been ignoring the dilapidated “diving girl” hotel sign outside the Piccarreta Davis law firm for at least a couple years. The newly legal sign, perched on the firm’s corner lot for 65 years, beckons visitors. Moyer, who is both Tucson’s planning and sign-code administrator, allowed the illegal sign to remain under the city’s now-defunct sign ordinance.

The firm’s lawyers kept the sign at the expense of advertising their practice; the diving girl occupied all allotted space for signage on their property. They told a reporter from the Arizona Daily Star that they still get calls about possible vacancies, despite having occupied the lot for decades.

According to Moyer, a change-of-copy request for the sign helped spark the recently passed Historic Landmark Sign ordinance amendment; because the sign was illegal, the request was withdrawn. Instead, it remained rusted and marred by graffiti, with most of its neon broken.

Painstaking progress
In 2009, the city’s longstanding Citizen Sign Code Committee (CSCC) formed an ad-hoc committee to suggest a sign-code amendment sympathetic to historic signs like the diving girl.


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The group spent 13 months considering similar efforts in Portland, OR; Orlando and Flagstaff, AZ, and debating the balance of saving old signs and preventing blight. Carlos Lozano, who runs the historically minded website, VanishingTucson.com, helped craft the ordinance revision: “We looked at it from every possible angle, basically considering worst-case scenarios for each part of the amendment, “ he said. “The hardest part was defining what is historic. You can’t just go by date or materials.”

Tucsonians have been informally — and selectively — saving old neon signs for years, but many local icons have been lost over the years as properties changed hands and signs were taken down.

Debra Jane Seltzer has driven cross-country multiple times, documenting signage by state for her comprehensive website, RoadsideArchitecture.com. She considers vintage neon signs an integral part of Tucson’s history. These signs “reflect a time in America when Mom and Pops ruled. Businesses had their own unique identities, reflected in their one-of-a-kind signs,” she wrote in an email.

Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, also sat on the ad-hoc committee. He and Lozano surveyed the city in a preliminary study that identified 100 potentially salvageable, historic signs.


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