This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Speaker standing at the podium

Jim Thole

Jim Thole:  Morning everybody, and let me put that slide up. There we go. That’s what I’m all about. Not knowing what was coming before me, well I hit the wrong button. Here we go.

Yep, yep. Not knowing who was coming before me and so forth, I also put up a map of Route 66 here. This one is a more modernistic style and you can grab in a nanosecond where it goes, well you don’t have to study the boundaries, including that little corner of Kansas right there. I put this up for a quick reason. Route 66 began in 1926, November it comes off the maps. In June of 1985, a 60-year period. It would be that center 20 years, in the mid-40s or the mid-60s that would certainly be its heyday. That coincides with the heyday of neon on Main Street as well. I wanted to make that point. Neon comes to the United States from France in 1923. In Los Angeles it shows up. It’s for the rich and famous in Las Vegas and so forth, until the mid-40s and that’s when it makes its way to Main Street.

The heyday of both Route 66 and of neon is the same time. Hence we often see Route 66 called the Neon Highway. You’ve heard Main Street of America, earlier you heard the Mother Road, the Neon Highway. It’s got one more name, I’m surprised we haven’t heard it yet here in Oklahoma and that is the Will Rogers Highway, Oklahoma’s favorite song. So that completes the four names.

This is what I’m all about here this morning in terms of the presentation. We’re going to talk about grassroots neon sign restoration. We’ll talk about how it came about. It all starts with the Congress in 1999 when they created the Route 66 Carter Preservation Program and they created that program to preserve the rich and diverse culture and characteristics of that developing automotive era when we would see the invention of the driving vacation. When the journey was just as important a part of the trip as was the destination. When Route 66 meant by itself adventure and going somewhere. To preserve that culture.

Its primary feature, one of its primary features of that program, was a cost-sharing program, 50/50 basically. That would help the property owners of vintage properties to restore their properties again, to preserve that culture that we talked about. One of the very first success stories, if not the first in terms of using that grant funds, those grant funds which first became available in 2001, was the New Mexico Route 66 Association, led by Johnny Meier, its president. They applied for and got a grant to restore five neon signs in 2001, and they did it in a big way because they followed that up with four more in 2002. By the end of 2003, they had nine restored neon signs along Route 66. That was quite an achievement. That was noted by many people, including our own Missouri Route 66 Association. We took note of that, and we decided, the Board decided there, that in Missouri that we ought to do the same thing and emulate that achievement in New Mexico, restoring some neon signs in Missouri as well.

So they created the Neon Heritage Preservation Committee, that’s a mouthful. I’ll say NHPC from now on. Our purpose really was two-fold. Number one was to take possession of the orphaned signs that no longer had a home, and to hold onto those with the intent of creating a neon park in the future. I can say that that’s actually taken off. We have about a handful of signs in our possession and we’ve partnered with the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau as well as the City of St. Robert and Beth Wiles is here with us today. She’s part of that effort. We got all the pieces in place but we need that last thing, which is called funding. We’re still working on that.

The other more important, I don’t want to say more important, but the one that’s gotten a lot more attention in terms of the purposes of the NHPC was to preserve and restore those sentinels, neon sentinels, that are still at their post. That’s we have done. We’ve done 12 of those in the last 10 years, so we are relighting the night in Missouri. I thought we would take a look at what I consider the four elements as to why that has been a success.

First, and foremost of course, those cost-shared grants were a vital part of that. Because with the competitive environment that these mom and pop businesses are in nowadays with the franchises of the national corporations, they just don’t have the means to restore those signs. But if you cut the costs in half, then you get it within their grasp. So certainly the cost-share program of that Route 66 Carter Preservation Program has been a vital part of that.

Secondly, the professional expertise of Team Neon, and by the way, I’ll come back to that in a second. But I don’t mean to blow our own horn here, but just basically tell you the facts. When the NHPC was created in July 2006, it was at a board meeting. I remember it distinctly at one of the wineries in St. James, we were on the veranda, the second floor. I walked up to the top of the steps and the President met me and said, “Guess what? We’re going to create this neon preservation committee today and you’re going to be the Chairman.” “Oh really?” There was no question mark after that. There was a period after that.

So what I didn’t do was get up and say, “I can’t. I need some volunteers for some help on this.” I didn’t do that at that meeting or the next meeting either. What I did was I got my good buddy, Bob Gale, who’s just as interested in this as I was, and who also possessed some real marketing and public relations skills that we needed to make these projects happen. The two of us then decided, “Well we need two more talents. We need a historian,” and so we went and got the best. We went and got Esley Hamilton, who was the Preservation Historian for St. Louis County. That was his job for 30 years. Just a real pro.

Then we needed of course a neon consultant, and we found David Hudson. He would turn out also to be our restorationist. He owns a sign company. He not only has a sign company, he specializes in neon signs and on top of that, he specialized in restoring old vintage neon signs. So bingo! That’s the guy. The four of us became the Committee, and again I point out that we didn’t just go out and ask for volunteers. We recruited the talents we needed, and so the bottom line, I think the critical point is that we have on the Committee four people who do, or did, some retired, what they did in their professional life for a living. It just can’t beat that. That was exactly the formula we needed.

Later on we would be featured in, there’s a St. Louis newspaper that every year puts out a Best of St. Louis awards list. And in 2013, we got one of those. In that article, they called us Team Neon and that name has stuck ever since. It’s sure a lot shorter than that long phrase.

Another factor of our success is we were in the right place at the right time. The popularity of restoring vintage neon signs really took off around the year, right around the turn of the century. Whether that had to do with Johnny Meier’s brilliant effort, I’m not really sure. But it just seems to have taken off ever since, and it’s been an in-vogue thing. In the right place at the right time.

Lastly, another element was building partnerships at many levels. We have done a substantial amount of that, just knowing people in the right places at the right times really helps. Starting off the list of course, the management of the Carter Preservation Program, Kaisa Barthuli, right out there has been an indispensable aid in leading us through all those complexities of the grant program.

After doing three signs in Missouri, in our fourth one we went to the State of Illinois. We would submit then with Illinois to do the Luna Cafe Project. That would be the first jointly-sponsored application to the National Park Service for a joint grant. Then we also have a similar arrangement, or close association with the folks to the west. Oklahoma, although we just haven’t really found the right project there yet.

Other Route 66 organizations. Friends of Mother Road were really helpful in our Luna Cafe Project in Illinois. Also the Scenic Byway Program in Illinois, led by Bill Kelly, was very instrumental in laying the foundation for our Chicken Basket Project there. The state departments of tourism in both states. The State’s Department of Natural Resources, we know them. And especially the SHPO in Illinois has been, we’ve had very good contact there. Whenever we’re in any of the committees we’re in, we certainly want to join hands with the Route 66 leadership in those affected communities. For example, the Laclede County Route 66 Society in Lebanon, Missouri was very, we were close, worked close with them on the Munger Moss Project. Also in Litchfield, the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center Association, that’s a mouthful too. They worked, we worked very closely with them.

Lastly but not least for sure, the property owners themselves become our partners. Without them, we can’t proceed or succeed in what we’re going to do. So we have just a long list of partners that we have a good rapport with that are just really helpful in helping us to accomplish these tasks.

With that in mind then, let’s talk about the physical aspects of the sign restoration. There are basically three parts to the sign that you have to restore. But before you even get to that, there’s two other things you need to consider. So five altogether, but these two first ones, before we even get to the sigh we go out to the site and look at the site itself. The condition of the pole. Can you reuse the pole? What’s the base? Is it cracked? Is it level or not? You look at all those conditions and we’re running, most of the time we have been using the pole. It could have a different situation besides the pole, of course. You could have a structure that sits on top of a roof or out on the side of a building. Most of the ones that we’ve done have been on poles. So you want to look at that.

Then of course, you want to, if you can, remove the sign from the pole, take it to the shop. That’s so much better for financial reasons, weather reasons, for quality control reasons. Eight of the twelve we have done have been removed. Two were just too big to move, and two were architectural projects on the sides of the buildings and it’s pretty hard to move the building. If you’re going to remove the sign, you want to look for nearby obstacles, barriers. Like for example, our Luna Café project, which was sat dead center between two telephone poles with telephone lines. So since it was sitting dead center, of course the [inaudible 00:13:23] was right above the sign. And was it ever like 10 to 12 inches, and so that was a real challenge. You want to look out for those.

The other thing you need to look for is your electrical distribution out to the sign. Is the existing network still in contact and operational? A lot of them are, but some aren’t. We’re running about 50/50 on this. But even if you get that, I guess on that, those are the voltage and amperage that it carries. Will that meet the requirements of the new sign? You got to get through those two hoops in order to use the existing network, otherwise you’re going to have to install a new electrical distribution network and that begins with a new junction box in the building and all the way out, and it’s not cheap. Again, we’re running about 50/50 on those. We [inaudible 00:14:11] able to use the old ones and the new ones.

Okay so those are two things we need to look out, look for and review other than the sign itself. So we get to the sign itself, we get to the reconditioning. One of the first things we’re going to do is recondition the metal cabinet. The first thing you need to decide is it painted or is it porcelain enamel finish. Most people don’t even know about a porcelain enamel finish, also called porcelainized steel. Same thing. Almost all of ours are porcelain enamel finish, because that’s just the way most of them were done back in those days. Whoever invented that deserves an applause because that stuff is just about indestructible. It is really good stuff. If you have a painted sign, you paint it, but if you have a porcelain enamel finish, you don’t paint it. You polish it.

Now you’ll have some cheap sign vendors who will come along and say, “Boy, that sign’s really faded out. We’ll paint it for you.” Of course, the owner doesn’t know any differences. “Sure, let’s go ahead and paint it.” Well that’ll last about as long as it takes for that guy to cash his check and get out of dodge because in about a year, it’s going to be peeling off. It doesn’t adhere to porcelain. Then it’s really ugly, when part of its peeling. So we use 3M rubbing compound to get that luster back. I should say one part 3M rubbing compound, and about 9 parts good old elbow grease. It’s not like Windex, spray it on, wipe it off, and it’s back. No. You’re going to need to do some rubbing.

I’m going to take you through an example here, let me see, series sequence for our Sunset Motel Project. Here’s the sign before it was restored, and of course there’s junk hanging on it and some neon. What I want you to pay attention to though is the faded out color, and the rust streaks. Also the lighting conditions, this is a milky white sky, not real sunny. This is what it’d look like before we got to it. After we put all that elbow grease and 3M rubbing compound in it, nothing happens here.

That’s what it looks like afterwards. Notice the color saturation and the clarity just by using rubbing compound. No paint, no magic elixirs, it’s back, and it’s really pretty. Next, what we’ll do, and again the point here about the lighting condition, there’s no sun here to bring out. This is the same milky white lighting conditions that we had back here. There’s before, there’s after. Just with rubbing down that enamel finish.

Then let’s go to changes the sunlight, the lighting effect, and lighting effect can have a lot of difference. You can see how it looks different here. This is the Sunset Motel, so let’s take a picture at sunset with that twilight gleam, with that orangey sky. Then we’ll just finish it out. This is what we came for in the first place, there’s the glow of the neon. And one last shot, this is actually a neon scene. We didn’t do just only the sign, we did the gables and there’s an entrance and an exit sign off the picture. I got one in the insert there. This is your quintessential Route 66 heyday pastoral motel, 12 units in a “V”, gables, neon, neon signs, this is as good as it gets to recreate that feel.

So from there we going to talk about remaking the neon tubing. We always make it  100%. You can, if it’s intact, re-pump it, reuse it, but we always go just to get uniform clarity and brilliance. Determining the colors is always an issue. It’s not an issue when the sign’s worked recently, everybody knows, there’s pictures. But what if it hasn’t worked in 40 years? Then you ask 3 people what the colors were, and they get 3 different answers, nobody has a color picture. So what you do is you go up to the sign, hopefully there’s still a few shreds hanging on it because all you need is that tubing. Is it clear? Has it got a phosphorous on it? Does it have a piece of mercury in it or not? All those things will tell the craftsman what the color was. If there’s nothing on the sign whatsoever, then what you do is get your gardening clothes on and your pair of gloves and a little bitty rake. You go down at the base of the pole and you do some scratching, and lo and behold, guess what you just might find in the grass down there? Which is what we did at the Vic Suhling.

Some other guidelines for quality craftsmanship, and I’ll just rattle these off quickly. You want to make sure to use the same diameter of glass. You want to watch the tube ending techniques. They’re much more angular, stylers are stylish back in those days as opposed to nice, rounded ends. That’s easy to do. You want to make sure that your neon supports are all glass and not cheap plastic. Likewise with the neon electrode housings. Make sure that they’re glass or porcelain, not plastic, and that they’re long and extend back into the sign. Not little short things, because you want your connections, your electrical connections to be inside the sign, not outside the sign.

We’ve done the outside, the neon, and the face. We want to go to the internal cart, internal components part. This is easy to say, not so easy to do. You just gut it. Take everything out and just replace it with all new stuff that meets the code. Usually you’re going to find an accumulation of a lot of old devices in there that were never removed when devices failed, or when sign modifications were made. Of course those are great, great, great nick and crannies for bird nests, for accumulation of moisture. So you want to get all that stuff out of there. And while you’re checking it all out, you want to look for flashing, chasing, and other animation devices. Flashing is obvious, on and off. Chasing is of course when you have circles or arrows and the sequence of the lighting makes it look like it moves. Here in the Munger Moss, that arrow has a chasing sequence to it.

Other animation, the sky’s the limit. Anything that’s bizarre, like in our very first project there in the Donut drive-in, the donut’s dropping down the pole and then pointing into the drive-in. There’s all kinds of good examples of that. One of my famous ones that I like is in Albuquerque, there’s a Dachshund on the Doghouse Diner. On the front end, he’s happily eating sausages. On the backend, no, don’t go there. He’s wagging his tail because he’s really happy, so there’s all kinds of good examples of that.

At this point what we’re going to do is we’re going to run through all of our projects here just for the picture, picture tour. These are two of them obviously. Let’s start out in Illinois and go up from there. The Luna Café, there’s the whole scene. Close-up of the man in the moon, the famous man in the moon. We put him back. The sign itself, and there’s a close-up of the moon and a cherry in the glass. I have to tell you as fast as I can that they used to tell us that when the cherry was lit-up, certain activities were available upstairs. When it wasn’t, they weren’t. For every one person that told us that was true, there was another person that said it was a myth. So we obviously find out when David restores the sign, you got to have a separate circuit, turn that dude on. So when he took it apart he found no separate circuit.

The Vic Suhling sign, this sign stood there for 40 years abandoned and neglected. How it stood there that long I do not know. Pretty bad shape, but when we got done with it, after this, it looked like that. It was yellow, not white, because all of the yellow had faded away. Then a couple more, the Chicken Basket up in Chicago. Then back down to St. Louis, the Crestwood Bowl with the pin and the bowling ball. I love this one at St. Clair, the former Skylark Motel from 1952 to ’78. Then in ’93, the VFW bought it and it’s just a really pretty sight. It’s not duplicated anyplace else in the road. The Modern Cabins, that night we had the most fiery sky I’ve ever seen and I got a shot of that in the background on the relighting event.

Then the Boots Court. We relit that April 9th, just 2 years ago. Famous place, very famous place in Carthage. Crossroads of America, we heard about the Jefferson Highway earlier. That’s where it’s located, at Jefferson Highway in Route 66. We didn’t restore the sign. What we restored was the green neon curtains. Then lastly down here in Joplin, right now for all of you preservation enthusiasts, here is your chance to partake in a real relighting event coming up on this Saturday night. That bottom sign has always worked well, the purple one, but the one on top is being put up as I speak today. We’re going to relight it on Saturday night.

I have to hurry here. Why do we preserve these? I’m going to just read this. John Murphey was an assistant to Kaisa in 2010, and came down for our Munger Moss sign relighting event. I love this quote. “The Munger Moss sign restoration is important not only because it refurbished a remarkable sign, but because it is attached to one of the Mother Road’s true icons. Signs such as these are not just calling cards for Route 66; they are local landmarks and symbols of pride.” With those final words, we really pinpoint the underlying reason why these signs have become really special to us. They become members of the community.

This admonition. I shouldn’t say admonition. This exhortation is what I’m trying to say, that you will find installed on the walls of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. A great place to go. I was just there three weeks ago for the second time. Spoke with Scott, not Scott. Tod Swormstedt, the founder. Tod was supposed to be here actually, and so he sends his regrets that he couldn’t make it.

Speaker 1:  Are there questions? Yes, Kaisa.

Kaisa Barthuli:  Thank you, Jim, for a fabulous presentation. Fantastic. I’ve been receiving and fielding phone calls about the high cost of operating and maintaining neon for a lot of property owners along Route 66. I would just like to note that it is an ongoing challenge in terms of once, just even coming up with the resources to get them restored and then the ongoing maintenance. I was talking with the owner of the Rock Café in Stroud, Oklahoma, and she was saying it costs her about $12,000 a year to maintain and run her neon sign which can be really cost-prohibitive for people. I hope that municipalities might rise up to the task someday of having funds available to help maintain the neon landscape within their communities, or non-profit organizations.

There are also challenges of property owners wanting to use LED lighting instead of neon, which is another important preservation question to be talking about. Many would argue that that, if using LED really removes the artistry and the craftsmanship, and the original character-defining aspect of the neon. Anyway, just some thoughts that I would share.

Jim Thole:  Setting the boundaries, including that little corner of Kansas right there. I don’t know what the F’s that weird name. I didn’t hear the question in there. Was there a question?

Speaker 2:   There was no question. Well I do have one. The entrance sign at the Sunset Motel?

Jim Thole:    Yes.

Speaker 2:   Those were low to the ground and there was concern about vandalism and of course, hail. There was some Plexiglas put around them to be a deterrent to damage. Do you know how that has worked or not worked?

Jim Thole:  I think it’s worked pretty well. There’s a name for that, begins with an “L,” can’t think of it right now. But I think it’s worked pretty well, because that Sunset Motel is located in a location in the country where it can be dark and there can be some issues with vandalism. Even [inaudible 00:28:30] cars throwing rocks up, just from the tires. But I’ve not heard any complaints from the owner about it that he doesn’t like it. If anything, it’s worked out. [inaudible 00:28:42].

Speaker 3:   I know the Munger Moss is for sale right now, and are there any protections for these signs that you’ve restored?

Jim Thole: Well, to get the grant, one of the things they have to do is to sign an agreement that they will maintain it for 10 years. Now, I don’t know how much legal weight that actually holds. But they have agreed to maintain it for 10 years and also if someone else buys the property, to encourage them to maintain it also for that 10-year period. So that’s about the limit of what I know in terms of-

Speaker 3:  You know if anyone’s bought it?

Jim Thole:  I don’t think so.

Speaker 1:    One last question. Amy?

Amy Webb:   It’s really wonderful to see all the restored signs that you’ve worked on, and I’m just curious, as someone who’s working on this for a while and has looked at places across the Route, if you have any sense of the scope of the neon restoration work that is still to be done on Route 66?

Jim Thole:  A lot. You’ll go back, the reason why I was nominated for the Chair of this committee was because I was in, beginning the year 2000, I started photographing neon signs at night and I had [inaudible 00:30:18] after a while made it my challenge to photograph every neon sign on the road at nighttime. It took me 15 years to do that, but I got 98% of them I think. While doing that, there’s certainly are a lot of them out there that we could be restoring. But it takes the money, it takes the commitment from the property owners to get that done. It’s just all about funding. The time to get it done, it’s not an easy thing. We’ve done one a year, and we think we’ve done pretty good, or 12 in 10 years. Johnny Meier did 9 in 2 years, and since that time he’s done 6 more. So they’re still ahead of us at 15, and we’re at 12, not that we’re playing a game here. But we’ve done 27 between us in New Mexico, Missouri and Illinois. So 3 states.

I can think of three or four in my mind right now like, boy, I wish we could get those done. Like for example, the Midpoint Café in Texas would be a really neat one to get done. The list goes on.

Speaker 1:        Thank you, Jim.


Jim Thole grew up in Highland, Illinois just off Route 66, and moved to Manchester, Missouri in the mid-70’s. He began travelling Route 66 in 1992, and has driven the entire route. He was elected to the Board of Directors for the Route 66 Association of Missouri 12 years ago, and soon became the chairman of its newly-formed Neon Heritage Preservation Committee.That committee of four (dubbed “Team Neon” by a St. Louis newspaper in one of its 2013 “best of” awards) has now directed the restoration of 12 Route 66 historic neon signs in Missouri & Illinois over the last ten years.

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