We believe that historic neon signs are unique works of art that deserve to be treated as such. Our principles include the following:
Neon belongs on our streets. Neon is a public treasure, so the ideal preservation scenario is for a historic neon sign to remain in the public space, in place, despite changes made to originally attached building structures. If proper repairs can be done without removal of the sign, this is the best case scenario. Cities are vibrant places anchored in history, and historic neon signs connect us to the past in a vitally vibrant way that cannot be replicated with alternative light sources.
Museums are the next best thing. If a sign has to come down and the owner can’t keep it, the next best place for it is in a local museum. Outdoor sign parks are wonderful, but the Portland area doesn’t have one of those (yet). The National Neon Museum in the Dalles is the closest one.
Experienced neon sign shops are best for repairs and restorations. It’s best to work with a shop that has a long history with neon, a respect for historical materials, and the willingness to openly discuss the pros and cons of restoration, rebuilding, and preservation and knows the difference between these approaches. See Neon Best Practices, page 8.
Legislatively, neon needs a lot more protection than it currently has. While Portland’s Interstate Corridor designation is a decent start, we could really use sign code revisions, a vintage sign ordinance, demolition delays, and financial incentives, among many other options. Right now the only grant available to neon signs is Proper Portland’s PIP Grant.
LED lighting is the wrong substitute for neon. Beyond the aesthetic shortcomings of LEDs — limited spectrum and poor light quality, easily visible to the naked eye — they also are comprised of materials that are toxic, non-recyclable, wasteful to replace, and short-lived. Thoughtful use of LED bulbs are an acceptible replacement for incandescent bulbs, however.
Updates to a sign’s text or colors are injustices that can likely never be undone. Leaving a sign “as is” or restoring or rebuilding a sign to its original state is the best way to keep these works of art alive for generations to come. There are examples from all over the world of beautiful old storefront signs that are well-preserved in place, regardless of what business uses the space (see these examples in Italy), and we believe this can and should be done here in Portland as well. Vintage neon signs are original and irreplaceable works of art. Would you change the nose on a Rembrandt? We think not.
Rebuilding a neon sign without neon doesn’t make any sense. Original neon signs, such as Portland’s Hung Far Low sign in Chinatown, were literally built for the purpose of hanging neon on their cabinets. The rebuild of the Hung Far Low sign without neon was a mistake. Of course tube-bending adds to the cost of the project, but this sign is hard to read in daylight, as the colors used are low-contrast. We believe this is a wasted opportunity. Same goes for reproducing your sign in plastic. Nobody likes it!
Quality lettering is nothing to sneeze at. Don’t just hastily pick a font for a sign that could potentially last 100 years! Legibility, aesthetics, and cultural meaning are all huge considerations when deciding on letter styles. Consult an experienced local typographer.
New neon is the key to keeping old neon alive. If nobody’s making new neon signs, we won’t have anyone around with the skills to repair the old ones. Support your local neon benders! There a few full-time neon artists in Portland (see list). Help keep the trade going by ordering a custom sign for your business, living room, basement bar, wedding, or office!
PDX Neon is an advocacy group, not an official non-profit organization, and doesn't currently engage in fundraising activities.