Edmonton’s Neon Sign Museum Celebrates 5th Anniversary!

David has been the Program Manager for the Museum since fall of 2014. David Holdsworth was the original creator and champion of the Museum, and spent several years finding a location for the project and obtaining the original signs.


 

You’re only five years old? My how you’ve grown!

Since the Museum opened in February 2014 on the east wall of the TELUS wire centre on 104 Street downtown, the collection has grown not only in terms of numbers of signs (from 8 in 2014 to 22 in 2019), but we also started accepting one-sided (or flat) signs. The original intent of the Museum was to showcase double-sided (or projecting) signs; however, as time went by, we were offered a few one-sided signs, and felt they were every bit as important as the projecting signs.

To accommodate these, we approached the owners of the Mercer Warehouse building on the east side of 104 Street, across from the Museum, as a potential satellite location for the Museum to showcase the one-sided signs. The owners, who were huge supporters of the museum at the onset, were thrilled at the opportunity to support the initiative, and we had a frame system and four new signs installed there in 2016.

Mercer Wall, an addition to the Neon Sign Museum

Mercer Wall, an addition to the Neon Sign Museum

Why it’s one-of-a-kind…

1) The Museum showcases a different type of the Edmonton and region’s built heritage, a part of our history that was once very common in the urban landscape, but now has largely vanished due to cheaper sign options. I speak with people about the Museum every week in one capacity or another, and it always amazes me how they are connected to these signs and nostalgic about them. They bring back a lot of memories for people, they were local landmarks. They can also help tell our local stories – some of the signs have interesting histories associated with them. The preservation of these signs was a great example of capitalizing on our past, which provides assets to Edmonton’s population in the future – which is what heritage programs always strive to do.

2) The initiative is a great example of partnerships – the Alberta Sign Association is our critical partner, and they undertake all of the restoration, installation and maintenance of the signs in the Museum, largely on a volunteer basis. In some cases, the restoration of the signs can cost thousands of dollars. There would be no Museum without them. We also partner with The Works, as the Museum is also a public art initiative, and the Downtown Business Association. TELUS is obviously a key partner, providing a home to the Museum, as well as the owners of the Mercer Warehouse. We also work very closely with the City Archivist (Kathryn Ivany) and one of the archivists at the City Artifacts Centre (Benita Hartwell) to review each offering to the Museum. All signs are donated to the Museum (we do not purchase signs), and become the property of the City of Edmonton.

3) It has been one of many contributing initiatives that have helped 104 Street and the broader downtown continue to grow and provide more amenities for residents and visitors in this area. David Holdsworth and I often joke with people that the site for Rogers Place was selected in order to be close to the Museum!

The Museum is unique in Alberta and in Canada, as far as we’re aware. Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver have done some exploratory work for a similar initiative (I think Toronto has a couple of signs restored, such as the iconic Sam The Record Man sign) but ours is unique in the sense that it is a museum, and an outdoor one at that. The signs are lit and functional, and are concentrated in one location for people to enjoy and learn about (through our interpretive panels), 24 hours a day, for free! There are a few similar initiatives in the US from what we’re aware of, for example, the Boneyard in Las Vegas (although the signs there are not functional and not free to view).

4) There were 8 original signs when the Museum opened in 2014; we now have 22 signs in the collection. We have about a half dozen more signs that have been acquired by the Museum, and are currently undergoing restoration, such as the former Keg location in Old Strathcona, the Movie Studio (from 109 Street, across from the Garneau Theatre), La Boheme, and a large Parking sign from the 102 Street parkade in the downtown. We don’t have any stats related to visitors given the outdoor nature of the Museum. It has been featured in a number of travel publications and blogs about Edmonton, Alberta and/or Canada, and I often get calls from photographers who want to do weddings and other shoots at the site. It is also now routinely showcased on CBC, TSN, Sportsnet for any hockey broadcasts – they always show it at some point during intermissions, etc. The TELUS wall has 18 signs at present, and can accommodate up to 30 signs. The Mercer Warehouse wall currently has 4 signs, but only room for 2 or 3 more, so we’ll need to secure a new satellite location soon.

There were 8 original signs when the Museum opened in 2014; we now have 22 signs in the collection.  

5) Finally, it is an example of a great idea that needed time to be nurtured, but also needed a champion to make it happen (David Holdsworth). Lots of obstacles had to be overcome to make this a reality, and David’s persistence was the main reason it came to fruition. The partnership approach with the Alberta Sign Association, TELUS, The Works, the Downtown Business Association and the Mercer Warehouse owners has been absolutely key in making it happen as well, but without David’s efforts, the Museum simply wouldn’t exist.

David Johnston (right) and David Holdsorth (left)

David Johnston (left) and David Holdsworth (right)

Future Plans for the Museum

Looking ahead, David Holdsworth and I are working with a couple of property owners in the nearby vicinity to explore a second satellite site to accommodate more one-sided signs, as the Mercer wall is nearing capacity. We’re also considering other branches of the Museum for things like indoor neon signs (that can’t be installed outdoors), and even examples of vintage signage that isn’t neon (I get lots of offers of these types of signs).

We’re also working on how we can consider newer neon signs that get offered to us. I’ve had to turn down many, many offers of neon signs that were maybe only 5 or 10 years old, but were being disposed of by their owners. As the Museum is a museum, we do have careful consideration towards the signs as historic artifacts, meaning they should be of a certain age. However, I am very concerned at the loss of newer neon signs, as they are fine examples of the craft of neon signage in their own right. I’ve had to turn down neon signs from companies like A&W, Hudson’s and Divine Decadence (on Whyte Avenue), Jungle Jims and the Comic Strip (from Bourbon Street in West Edmonton Mall), and the Cheesecake Cafe, all because they were deemed to not be “historic”. We’re trying to figure out how we can balance the Museum’s mandate with the preservation of this disappearing craft, and accept signs that are relatively new.

It’s also exciting to note that I am working closely with the owners of the former location of Western Cycle on 124 Street and Stony Plain Road to secure and preserve the fantastic cyclist neon sign on their building. It is easily the sign I have received the most feedback from the public on, with many people concerned about its fate, due to the required closure of the store to accommodate the West Valley LRT extension. Due to the size of the sign, it will require a unique solution to include it in the Museum, but I am confident we can achieve this. This sign has a great story – the owners of Western Cycle went on their honeymoon to Los Angeles in 1959, and while there, saw a bicycle store with a very similar sign. Upon their return to Edmonton, they approached Darryl Blanchett of Blanchett Neon, who was a close personal friend, with a request to design a similar sign for their new bicycle shop. Blanchett Neon designed and installed the sign that we see on the building today in 1960 as a wedding gift, and it has remained there to this day. Blanchett Neon celebrated their 70th anniversary in 2017, and have been a great contributor to the Museum themselves. An interesting connection between two long-standing local Edmonton businesses.

No matter what, the future looks bright for our street of signs with lights!

Edmonton’s Neon Sign Museum

Edmonton’s Neon Sign Museum

To learn more about all of the signs in the collection and their history, visit edmonton.ca/neonsignmuseum.

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About the Author
David Johnston
David Johnston is a Principal Heritage Planner with the City of Edmonton. He is also the Program Manager of the City's Neon Sign Museum since fall of 2014.
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