In the early 1970’s, just as Tacoma’s Urban Renewal efforts were kicking in, Brutalist parking garages were showing up and old buildings were dropping out, City planners set their sights on a new ordinance governing commercial signage. Most of the sturdy but older buildings downtown were destine to survive the clearcut strategies of the federal Urban Renewal and Model Cities programs that followed a coded target of “blight removal”. On Pacific Avenue, blocks of late 19th and early 20th century buildings were demolished and replaced with a pair of massive parking garages but most of the city’s urban renewal goals were either unrealized or much more subtle in their consequences. One ambition was to eliminate neon signage.
Neon signs were born with the coming of the automobile-big and bright and easily seen through the windshield of a speeding car. In Tacoma, they lined the main streets downtown, ran along the busy highways and illuminated neighborhood commercial districts in south, east and north Tacoma. In the 20’s and 30’s, neon meant business, nightlife and sophistication but beginning in the 1960’s they were becoming old school, tawdry, cheap. They were outlawed along federal interstate highways and ridiculed by influential post war architects and city planners who were fascinated by concrete engineering and backlit plastic. Neon was notably absent at the stylish new shopping malls. It had become the garish face of streetscape blight-like cheap lipstick.
Tacoma’s first commercial sign ordinances dealt with the removal of old signs hanging over public sidewalks for safety reasons but the legal president was easily adapted to force shopkeepers and landlords to tear off neon signs for more aesthetic reasons. Bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and theaters that were showing B movies to the few people who didn’t have a television, were the most uncooperative neon troublemakers. Tattoo parlors on lower Pacific, saloons like the U&I with its neon handshake and the chilly blue Polar Bear bar on Commerce drove the sign enforcement officials crazy. The absence of moving parts in neon signage and the low cost of electricity didn’t help.
While the main focus of the anti-neon campaign was downtown, the ordinance began to make enemies of merchants and businesses on South Tacoma Way, 38th Street and K Street. Then in the early 1980’s, the City embarked on a misguided (and often tried elsewhere) effort to revitalize the waning downtown retail district by turning Broadway between 9th and 13th into a pedestrian only commons called the Broadway Plaza project. Lighting was a central design feature with giant florescent fishbowl fixtures in the middle of the closed streets and bizarre, slightly scary escalade tunnels with florescent ceilings and moving belts underfoot connecting with the bunker like parking garages on Pacific. A unifying project design element was the removal of projecting neon signage on the plaza and just to be fair the anti neon sign ordinance was amended and enforced city wide. High style urban design had arrived in Tacoma with R/UDAT (Urban Design Assistance Team) studies, technical assistance grants and more federal funding for beautification. They all hated neon.
As so often happens in Tacoma, another seeming unrelated civic endeavor was gaining momentum. In March 1980, Tacoma voters approved a $28 million bond issue to build an arena for sports and major events and even the south and east sides supported the measure. In the bars and bowling alleys, some still with their neon signs, it seemed like a matter of city pride to build a massive wooden dome where someday a professional basketball or hockey team might play. There were a few local grumbles about holding an international competition for the design but when the local architectural firm McGranahan and Messenger were chosen to create the structure all seemed to be going well. Well that is until another international competition was held to select public art for the project as provided for in the City’s 1% for the Arts ordinance. The 1% added up to $280,000, more than all the money ever spent on public art in Tacoma combined.
There are those that insist that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo started the Great War or that Bob Dylan going electric at Newport triggered a catastrophe but in Tacoma the case can be made that true warfare really started with the selection of Stephen Antonakos to create the artwork for the Tacoma Dome in 1984.
He worked in neon.
NEON WARS Part 2 is coming soon……