Preservation Magazine, Spring 2021

Neon Dream: The Rebuilding of a Brightly Lit Beacon Boosts a Nashville Neighborhood

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2020, a small, masked crowd stood in a liquor store parking lot waiting for a 30-foot-tall neon sign to light up. It may sound odd, but to the neighborhood of East Nashville, this was hope.

When a violent tornado ripped through Main Street after midnight on March 3 of that year, it knocked down the neon sign that had towered above Weiss Liquors since the late 1940s. The store is a Nashville institution, having first served as a speakeasy starting in 1932.

Even before the tornado, Nick Redford counted the Weiss Liquors sign as his favorite. Redford owns Fortify, a design/fabrication shop. “Those huge signs are like extravagant, absurd dinosaurs,” he says. “People just don’t know how to make them anymore.”

Fortunately, Redford does, so he rushed over to Weiss Liquors as daylight rose to offer help.

The store’s third-generation owner, Anne Nicholas Weiss, immediately knew she wanted to restore the sign—even though the insurance company had excluded it from coverage because of its deteriorating condition. Within hours Redford assembled a team to dismantle and transport it. (His studio didn’t have enough space to store it, so another local company, Bozman Sign Company, let him use their shop.)

Weiss Liquors Sign

photo by: Margaret Littman

The rebuilt sign during the day. Its pink and green colors, which match the originals, were chosen by the grandmother of the current owner, Anne Nicholas Weiss.

Nashville Sign at Night

photo by: Margaret Littman

At night, the rebuilt sign glows and the neon jug, drops, and splash move. The spiffed-up sign debuted late in 2020.

As Redford started the restoration he learned that the interior welds had rusted over time. At some point the sign had been cut into pieces and reassembled, possibly when it was moved to its current location in 1962. It was too fragile to restore; they would need to rebuild. Redford used the existing metal pieces as patterns, exactly duplicating the size (within an eighth of an inch) and shape of the originals. While working, he uncovered overlapping sections that had never been exposed to the elements, so he used those to match the original colors, some of which had been chosen by Weiss’s grandmother.

As the neighborhood—which is dotted with music venues, bars, and restaurants—suffered from coronavirus shutdowns after the tornado, Weiss felt it was important to resurrect the sign as soon as possible. Redford worked 100-hour weeks to get it done. “Many a night I laid awake thinking, ‘I have to get this right on behalf of Nashville,” he says.

He asked local second-generation neon artist David Rivers to re-create the neon jug, drops, and splash, which are animated again after more than a decade of being static. Megan Wood, owner of the sign-painting company I Saw The Sign, handled the hand-painting behind the neon. Even with heavy discounts and donations, the entire project cost at least $60,000.

The city of Nashville granted a variance so the sign could go back up in its old spot, and over a 2-week period, it was reconstructed in pieces and assembled on site. Redford was in the store’s control room when the sign first lit up again on that November day. But he heard the “oohs” and “aahs” from inside. “It was a healing moment for the neighborhood,” he says. “This is the best thing to happen in Nashville since the tornado.”

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By: Margaret Littman

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