This Arizona Town Uses Neon Signs to Illuminate History
“WE DID IT, CASA GRANDE,” reads the special 16-page tabloid on its first page. “GRAND OPENING.” These words are superimposed over a picture of a 1953 sign advertising a place called the Horse Shoe Motel. It’s daylight in the photo, but it’s obvious from the glass tubes stretched across it that this is a classic midcentury neon sign, the kind whose dramatic red glow could be seen in the distance on dark nights in the Arizona desert—the kind that defined the visual language of an era.
Today, the Horse Shoe Motel sign stands proudly among a group of other signs in downtown Casa Grande, Arizona (pop. 50,000), about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. The signs, once roadside markers that pointed travelers to businesses, are now obsolete, advertising companies that no longer need neon—or no longer exist.
But that doesn’t mean the iconic landmarks are going to waste. Now, thanks to a true community effort, they’re being displayed again in the town’s brand-new Neon Sign Park, which opened on April 13, 2019. Ultimately, 14 signs from historic Casa Grande—and one from Route 66—will stand tall and light up the night.
The goal of the Neon Sign Park is preserving Casa Grande’s authentic history, says Rina Rien, the executive director of local nonprofit Casa Grande Main Street. Each of the signs, except for the Dairy Queen “lips” from Route 66, was a major contributor to Casa Grande along the Highway 84 corridor. “During the period of the 1940s through the ‘60s, these signs dotted the landscape, and for people who were driving through our town—if you’ve been through the desert at night, it can be a little daunting—you see these signs lit up, and you know you’ve got a place to stay for the night if you can’t make it all the way to Tucson,” she says. “They were like beacons."
Casa Grande Main Street, along with the local Historic Preservation Commission, had been floating the idea of restoring and displaying the saved neon signs for a long time. A survey of the town’s historic resources had found that more than 30 were eligible for local historic designation. Then, in 2016, Rien and her team participated in the Arizona Gives Day campaign to raise the $7,000 it cost to restore the Sunset Motel sign.
“We had such a tremendous response from the community—we ended up with $10,000, which allowed us to do both the sign and an old Highway 84 mural attached to the sign on the wall so that people could understand the relevance and significance of these signs in our history,” Rien says. “And that set the stage for the neon sign park. We really saw that there was an opportunity here to expand upon the idea.”
Still, based on historic donation levels, Casa Grande Main Street assumed it would take 10 to 15 years to raise the amount it would need to permanently install the signs. But then the group heard about the Partners in Preservation (PIP) grant, a program of American Express and the National Trust. In 2017, the PIP grants were slated for main streets across America. An Arizona State Parks representative recommended Casa Grande Main Street apply for the grant, Rien says. It asked for $144,000.
Then the real grassroots campaign began. Residents could vote online five times per day for their town’s project. Marge Jantz, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Commission, was instrumental in getting townspeople to vote. “Rina at Main Street got busy with social media and I and a good friend hit the streets,” Jantz said in an email. “We were in RV parks, the bowling alley, and a multitude of business. We took table tents to the mom-and-pop restaurants. We had our friends spreading the word to their families and friends across the country. I even had the opportunity to present at the Society of Commercial Archaeology conference in Cincinnati at the beginning of the campaign. Everyone wanted to win, even though some now say they weren't quite sure what a Neon Sign Park really was going to look like.”
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Jantz, a longtime Casa Grande preservation advocate, wasn’t just instrumental to the voting: She helped collect and save many of the signs, including the Route 66 “red lips” Dairy Queen sign from Holbrook, Arizona, four hours away. The grand opening tabloid is full of 3-inch advertisements singing her praises. “Margery, Margery, puddin’ & pie / Saved Neon Signs and again they shine! Kudos to our friend, Marge Jantz!” says one. “We salute you, Marge Jantz,” says another, calling the park her “crowning achievement.”
The Neon Sign Park was in first place until the third week of the competition—and even then, it only dropped to second. That’s especially impressive, given that Casa Grande was competing with places like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Birmingham. “One of the other cities bought Twitter ads,” Rien says. “We did it the hard way.”
Winning the $144,000 grant made the Neon Sign Park possible in a way it hadn’t been before: The sudden infusion of money meant that Casa Grande Main Street could make the vision a reality in just 18 months. Rien is especially proud that the vision was realized without a dime of public funding.
The park’s neon signs were restored with actual neon gas instead of LED lights, a popular contemporary replacement. It was a sometimes-painstaking process that included looking at historical resources, sanding down paint to find original colors, and interviewing longtime residents to divine the neon’s colors, something the black-and-white photographs don’t show. They also relied on the expertise of artisans like Jude Cook of Cook & Company Signmakers in Tucson to return the signs to their original glow.
“You see these signs lit up, and you know you’ve got a place to stay for the night if you can’t make it all the way to Tucson. They were like beacons.”Rina Rien
Now, 13 of the 14 signs stand on a lot provided by the local newspaper conglomerate, lit by their own dedicated electrical transformer. Rien’s group is raising funds to restore the last sign, donated to the park after the grant was announced; when it’s finished and installed, the park will be complete. The next step is preserving the other signs mentioned in the historic survey. But for now, Casa Grande is celebrating.
Already, intergenerational bonds have been formed and strengthened, Rien says. “It was so wonderful to see people connect on that historical perspective. The elders of our community really embraced it. It generated all this storytelling about what they remembered the signs to be in that era,” she says. “But it also appealed to the younger generation, who thought the signs were just cool!”
Most important, she stresses, is the power this park has to revitalize downtown Casa Grande. “Rural communities will do so much with so little,” Rien says. “Look at what we were able to do and what a huge impact it has on our community.”
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