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On the Rebound

Erik Sine

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Nostalgic neon’s hot glow is cool again



Neon signs can evoke a range of emotions — from the cheerful optimism of their post-World War II heyday to the gloominess of a seedy, backstreet watering hole during its downturn.

But regardless of which way the popularity pendulum is swinging, there is one certainty: It is impossible to remain neon neutral.

People either love or hate the ostentatious marketing displays.

These days, neon appears to be on a comeback, with the latest sign to light the downtown Charleston skyline going up last week for a new tenant at the historic Cigar Factory on East Bay Street.

Advertising the Mercantile and Mash restaurant, the oversized neon sign was the perfect choice to make a statement on such a behemoth building, said Charleston architect David Thompson.

“On a building of that scale, you have to have a sign that has some presence from the street,” said Thompson, who designed the Mercantile and Mash sign as well as interiors for that restaurant and several other Cigar Factory tenants. “When you get to a sign that big, I think neon is the best candidate. There’s just more character to it.”

The Mercantile and Mash sign joins older neon notables on the Charleston peninsula, such as: the Tellis pharmacy sign still standing at the now-defunct lower King Street drugstore; the Berlin’s clothing store sign; a sign marking Star’s Restaurant; and a pair of signs advertising the soon-to-be-closed Morris Sokol furniture store.

New neon is popping up, such as a retro M. Dumas & Sons sign at the King Street clothier.

And more is on the way.

“I think neon should be everywhere,” said Thompson, who hints that additional neon signs might be added at the Cigar Factory as redevelopment of the 244,000-square-foot structure continues.

For signmaker Joe Binz, owner of Charleston Sign & Banner, neon is a peninsular phenomenon.

“Downtown, that seems like it’s been a big thing lately,” said Binz, whose company built the Mercantile and Mash sign. “But for the rest of the Lowcountry, we don’t do many.”
It’s a gas

Most signs with lighted individual lettering are illuminated by light-emitting diode, or LED, modules. LED is cheaper, it burns longer and it requires less maintenance than its neon counterpart.

Signs illuminated by LEDs also are easier to make.


Neon signs are made from glass tubes that are heated and then bent to form various letters and shapes.

“Once you take it out of the heat, you have about 10 seconds to bend it,” said Robert Harris, sales manager for Charleston Sign & Banner. “Then you bring it back and heat it again, you’re back and forth several times until you get it to the shape you want it to be.”

After the glass is shaped, a vacuum pump sucks all of the air out of the tube, which is then repeatedly zapped with 15,000 volts of electricity to purify its interior. The tube is then filled with neon, argon and mercury gases. The gases, combined with fluorescent coating on the glass tubes, form various colors.

In a completed sign, an electric current hits the electrodes in the tubes and the electrons flow through the gas, making it glow.

“There’s a craftsmanship that you don’t see very often any more,” Binz said of the process. Charleston Sign & Banner built the Mercantile and Mash sign entirely on site at its Dorchester Road office in North Charleston.

For Thompson, craftsmanship is a key part of neon’s appeal.


“It’s not a machine-made thing,” he said. “It’s a handmade element by necessity, and I think the appreciation for handmade things is coming back into vogue. People are getting a little tired of the mundane, and neon is anything but mundane. You can’t make a mundane neon sign.”

Neon has been around for more than a century, but the glowing glass tubes didn’t hit their peak in America until the 1930s and ’40s, when there were more than 5,000 neon workshops across the country.
Retro rebound

Almost as fast as neon soared, it began to sputter. By the 1960s, zoning regulations regularly banned the objects, and neon signs were considered kitschy at best and a sign of urban decay at worst, “their light shining above all on those looked down upon as losers,” according to Christopher Ribbat’s book “Flickering Light: A History of Neon.”

A few decades later, preservationists, architects and artsy types began to realize what was being lost when neon signs were relegated to the trash bin.

“What’s lost is character, a sense of the neighborhood community and a piece of history,” Chicago photographer Dan Zamudio — who published a book chronicling that city’s neon signs — told USA Today.

For Thompson, the architect, neon’s resurgent popularity is steeped in nostalgia.

“You see it in people’s cars, the number of Vespas on the street, the speakeasy design that’s happening,” Thompson said of baby boomers’ longing for things that remind them of their youthful 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. “That era just happens to be popular across all kinds of media now. It’s good timing for neon.”

Zoning regulators also are warming up to neon. Thompson said it’s “not as difficult as it once was” to get approval for a neon sign from Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review, even though the board’s official stance is “the use of exposed neon is generally not permitted.”

“It’s certainly an exception to the rule, and the BAR has always done a good job of scrutinizing when it’s a good time to break the rules,” Thompson said. “Their meter for that is that it has to be a unique use and it has to be done exceptionally well.”

And as neon’s acceptance grows, Thompson said he intends to push the BAR’s comfort level.

“I’d like to see a neon sign that has a little bit of movement to it,” he said. “They used to be very playful, and I think we’ve gotten overly conservative in what our taste is right now. So I’m going to be looking for an opportunity to propose a more exuberant sign in the future.”

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