In Sunday's Oregonian, an op-ed by land use attorney Sandra Duffy makes a personal plea to save the threatened Crown Motel sign on Interstate and others like it. She also walks us through some successful and unsuccessful past efforts in Portland to save such neon gems.
Growing up two blocks from Interstate in the Overlook neighborhood during the late 1950s, Duffy remembers how the neon Palm Motor Hotel sign, "complete with monkey and coconuts, was the landmark guiding Dad's turn in the neighborhood. Classmates with a summer birthday and whose parents had money to spare (mine did not) would rent a room for a birthday pool party there."
Dufffy goes on to cite how other developers have "recognized the historical significance of neon icons and incorporated them into new uses," adding:
Montgomery Ward blazed red for decades from Northwest Portland. The Naito brothers tweaked it into Montgomery Park, a landmark for new generations. The Naitos also saved the White Stag for their Made in Oregon store. The Paramount movie theater sign was retrofitted into the Portland marquee with the renovation of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
But it was another favorite lost to history that Duffy likes best, the "Reddy Kilowatt" mascot for Pacific Power's downtown office where her father worked, "a little man with lightning bolts for arms and legs, a light bulb for a nose and wall outlets for years." If that neon sign were still shining somewhere in Portland, I'd have to draw from the cheerful rhetoric of Rachel Ray: "How good does that look?"
As previously discussed, Tri-Met is involved in developing this project to promote mass transit use, and Reach Community Development is building SERA Architects-designed lower income housing there: a noble endeavor certainly. I also think all involved want to do the right thing, or at least avoid doing the wrong thing. It seems like the community uproar over the ambiguity of the sign's fate took them a little by surprise, but that they'd unquestionably prefer somebody save the sign and preserve it elsewhere, if only to avoid being blamed for contributing to the demise Interstate's atomic-age neon heritage.
Incidentally, one of the other proposals for that same Crown Motel site that lost out to Reach's, I was told, was for a boutique motor hotel that would embrace the original site and sign as part of its image and program. I'm not sure that would have been a better plan for a site along the MAX line, given that residents are perhaps more likely to use the train. And with Erik Sten's announced departure from the city council, affordable housing in Portland has already lost an important advocate. We should be supporting organizations like Reach. Still, I'd have been excited to hear of the other developer's plans had they won out.
Meanwhile, there seems growing reason for optimism that the Crown sign will at least be preserved elsewhere, and possibly still on Interstate. The Atomic Age Alliance has been meeting, as Pulitzer prize nominee Inara Verzemnieks (say that three times fast!) wrote about in The Oregonian last Friday, and I wouldn't put it past them to go nuclear if more neon signs start coming down. Ultimately, though, there ought to be a conciliatory, diplomatic way of handling the "Crown Affair" that saves face for everybody -- including the sign itself, of course.