Planner Suggests Provisions for Preserving Historic Signs

The following article appeared in the April 1989 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. The original article was published in the November 1988 issue of PAS Memo , which was a monthly publication produced by the American Planning Association. It is now published six times a year online.

By Peter H. Phillips, AICP

In the rush to control or dismantle unsightly commercial strips, or to impose restraint, “good taste” and carved wooden signs on downtown storefronts, nearly every city adopts a sign ordinance that requires removal of non-conforming signs. Generally, a grace period of several months or a few years is allowed, but, in the end, all violating signs – historic or not – are required to be taken down to make way for something less garish. Some juris dictions even make payments or have grant programs to encourage the owner to replace the offending sign.

When this action by the city occurs, it simply adds another disincentive for the continuation of the sign. High maintenance costs (especially for painted or neon signs), turnover of building tenants and updated logos and materials imposed by corporate franchises all contribute to the demise and removal of old signs.

Why be concerned over the elimination of unsightly signs? Weren’t these the same signs derogatorily referred to in the 1960s as “the neon jungle”? In today’s cost-conscious, homogenized society, the expensive, unique, labor-intensive signs of the past have all but disappeared. Formless, backlit plastic signs are everywhere. Old historic signs are examples of a dying art (bending neon tubes, for example).

Unusual signs provide local color, historic character, individuality, as sense of place or orientation (especially with landmark signs), and clues to a building’s history. This Memo describes some ways of defining and distinguishing those signs that should be preserved. It looks at some cities that have historic sign ordinances in place and offers some suggestions for amending the community sign ordinance so that it takes into account the value of historic signs.

What should be designated or saved?

When the City of Pasadena, CA, recently revised its sign-control ordinance to protect historic signs, part of the amending language was a requirement that a written inventory of historic signs be established and maintained by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission. Rockford, IL, and Manhattan, KS, have also undertaken and completed city-wide, historic-sign surveys following the realization that their respective sign-control ordinances could mean the unintentional loss of significant cultural or historic resources.

Although it is not imperative, including an inventory requirement in an ordinance that regulates historic signs is a very good idea. One should not, however, allow the cost and other resource considerations of an inventory to discourage a city council from enacting a protective ordinance. Loading a new ordinance up with staffing and other front-end costs is a sure way to get defeated in a small or fiscally strapped community where the political support for historic preservation is not solid.

If an inventory is possible, it should include 1) neon signs (visible glass tubing), 2) incandescent signs, 3) porcelain signs (many neon and incandescent signs have porcelain backgrounds), 4) painted wall signs, 5) Carrara glass or Vitrolite signs on storefronts from the Art Deco period, 6) cast aluminum or stainless-steel lettering, usually 3-D and freestanding, above or attached to a storefront, and 7) barber poles.

While this list is a start, each community should determine which of its signs are unusual, significant or meaningful to its streetscape and history.

Once completed, the inventory should be edited, printed and distributed to downtown business owners, chambers of commerce, news media reporters and local preservation groups as a means of raising the community’s consciousness and lining up support for the actual adoption of the historic-sign ordinance. The list can also be used to provide guidelines for future decisions on whether or not to confer historic designation on individual signs.

Methods of preservation through zoning

Once a sign ordinance is adopted, individual exemptions from amortization and conformity standards re usually granted for certain signs. The exempt status is typically conferred by a locally appointed body, such as the landmarks commission, planning board or city council.

In Culver City, CA, the city council may declare a sign to be of “historical significance” upon application by the sign’s owner and a recommendation from the planning commission. Culver City’s definition of historical significance is more limiting than most, as it requires that all of the following requirements be met.

  1. The sign and the use to which it pertains have been I continuous existence at the present location for not less than 50 years. [This would eliminate the majority of historic signs in many communities.]
  2. The sign is an appurtenant graphic (i.e. an on-premise sign that relates to the use of the property, as opposed to an off-premise billboard.)
  3. The sign is unique and enhances the cultural, historical or aesthetic quality of the community.
  4. The sign is structurally safe or is capable of being made so without substantially altering its historical significance.
  5. The sign comlies with certain movement, bracing and intensity of illumination requirements contained in another section of the overall sign ordinance.


Once it is so designated, the historic sign is deemed in compliance with the entire sign ordinance, regardless of its current location or dimensions. It now has immunity from the amortization and conformity deadlines of the sign ordinance.

The Pasadena, CA, ordinance follows a similar individual exemption procedure, but is much more liberal in its interpretation of what constitutes an historic sign. To be designated “historically significant” by the Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission – and thereby exempt from the height, location and area requirements of the city’s sign code – a sign must have been installed prior to 1960 and, unlike the Culver City code, meet only one of the following criteria:

  1. The sign is of exemplary technology, craftsmanship or design of the period in which it was constructed; uses historic sign materials (wood, metal or paint directly applied to buildings) and means of illumination (neon or incandescent fixtures); and is not significantly altered from its historic period. If the sign has been altered, it must be restorable to its historic function and appearance.
  2. The sign is integrated into the architecture of the building. Such signs shall include, but not be limited to, sign pylons on buildings in the Moderne style. [This is an excellent provision for buildings constructed from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, which are just beginning to be recognized as architecturally significant in some circles.]
  3. A sign that doesn’t meet criteria “A’” or “B” above may be considered for inclusion in the inventory (and thereafter be considered historic) if it demonstrate extraordinary aesthetic quality, creativity, innovation, and findings to that effect are made by the Cultural Heritage Foundation.

A third, and somewhat different, example of individual sign designation and exemption comes from Dallas, TX. The Dallas City Code was amended in 1984 to allow the city planning commission to review applicants for “landmark sign” status. The commission makes its recommendations to the city council, which is the official designating authority. To be considered a landmark sign in Dallas, a sign must:

  1. Be at least 15 years old.
  2. Be visible from a distance of a half mile or more from a major thoroughfare or expressway.
  3. Possess unique physical design characteristics, such as configuration, color, texture, or other unique characteristics.
  4. Be of extraordinary significance to the city.

That city’s best-known beneficiary is the Mobil Oil Company’s flying red horse (Pegasus), which sits atop the central business district’s 29-story Magnolia Building. For many years (approximately 1920-1960), it was Dallas’ tallest structure, and it’s still visible from some of the downtown expressways.

Almost every major city has its well-love landmark sign. In Boston, it’s Kenmore Square’s Citgo sign. In Baltimore, it’s the Domino Sugar sign across from the inner harbor. In Minneapolis, it’s the Grain Belt Beer sign, a neon spectacular next to the Mississippi River. In Atlanta, up unitl 1981, it was the 33-foot-diameter Coca-Cola sign in Margaret Mitchell Square (a Coke spokesperson said, apologetically, at the sign’s January 1981 demolition, “Like most Atlantans, we at Coca-Cola have an emotional attachment to the sign.”)

Although the Dallas sign ordinance is more progressive and enlightened than most, it does not recognize other historic, non-landmark signs (although more than a dozen have been designated there). A broader designation of “historic” would allow for the preservation of antique porcelain signs of all sizes, downtown theatre marquees, 3-D stainless-steel lettering, etc. A footnote to the Dallas ordinance is worthy of mention because it sounds as if it were tailored to help preserve non-landmark signs.

It exhorts the reviewing board to base its designation on “the historical significance of the physical composition or structure of the sign . . . [and] the importance of the sign in identifying a particular area of the city and the attitude and sentiment of the community . . . without regard to the historical significance of the company or other entity that is identified by the sign.”

Another method of preservation is the wholesale exemption of certain areas or districts from the sign ordinance. Baltimore’s Burlesque District (popularly known as “The Block”) is the best example. In this case, however, the exemption s not so much to save historic signs as it is to preserve a certain ambiance or character (or, perhaps, to legally throw up one’s hands!) that is promoted by the gaudy strings of bare, flashing light bulbs on every building in this small portion of the central business district.

A more polished version of the above is the “Special Sign District,” which is found in Dallas, TX, and Seattle, WA. In Dallas, Special Sign Districts are delineated and adopted by a zoning-ordinance amendment approved by the city council, similar to the adoption of an overlay zoning-district amendment. The special district’s sign regulations, in theory, may be more strict or more lenient thatn the citywide restrictions. In practice, the only special-sign district in Dallas has resulted in a stringent ordinance to ensure that signs are of “appropriate historical design” and do not “visually obscure significant architectural features” of the city’s early, 20th-Century West End Historic District. In Seattle, the special restrictions are in force in the Pioneer Square Historic District.

The final – and the most radical – method of significant sign preservation is New York City’s recent zoning-ordinance amendment that requires all buildings in Times Square to be adorned with neon spectaculars. In an effort to preserve and encourage the dazzling displays that have historically given Times Square its character, the city now specifies minimum sizes and levels of illumination for signs on all buildings that front Seventh Avenue or Broadway, between 43rd and 50th Streets. It seems that the city planning department and several neighborhood groups were concerned that Times Square might lose it chaotic, exciting atmosphere and become yet another indistinguishable canyon of office buildings.

Recommended ordinance language

Other PAS monographs and other sources should be consulted for guidance in preparing an entire sign-control ordinance. Such an effort is beyond the scope of this paper. Included here, however, are the elements that should be incorporated into any sign ordinance to ensure sensitivity to, if not outright preservation of, historic signs.


The statement of purpose of the sign ordinance may require minor modifications so as not to excude sign preservation. Words such as “sign guidelines,” “balanced system of street graphics,” “opportunities for individual expression” and “compatible with surroundings” should be added to the statements from an earlier ordinance that sought to “control eliminate or amortize” all non-conforming signs.

If a certain 1950s commercial strip, for example, is to be exempted from normal sign controls, or is to receive special preservation consideration, reference to “the advertising needs” or “unique character” of “a particular area within the city” should also be made in this preamble.


Provision should be made for various signs, including “animated or flashing graphics,” which give the great neon spectaculars of the 1950s-1960s their character, and ghost signs.

Animated graphic

Any sign that displays its message through a series of changes in design, color, percentage of illumination, or caricature action, and requires electrical or mechanical energy to do so. Such signs shall not change color or intensity more than once in three seconds, nor shll such signs contain any exposed lamp over 15 watts, nor any luminous tube over 8 watts per foot. (This prevents a potential nuisance or traffic hazard from strobe lights or beacons.)

Ghost sign

A faded sign that’s at least 50 years old on an exterior (usually brick) building wall. [Age may need adjusting, depending upon the age of the city’s building stock.] Such signs are unique due to their age, letter style, outdated trademark, defunct company, obsolete product or clue as to the history of the building’s occupancy.

Landmark sign

A sign that’s at least 20 years old and visible for one-half mile or more from a major thoroughfare or expressway and which, by reason of unique design, size, configuration or it product’s/company’s long association with the city, is of extraordinary local significance. (This may have to be adjusted for various parts of the country.)

Historic sign

A sign that, by its construction materials, unusual age, prominent location, unique design or craftsmanship from another period, makes a contribution to the cultural, historic or aesthetic quality of the city’s streetscape. Historic signs may be spectaculars, landmark signs, ghost signs, porcelain or neon signs, theatre marquees, or signs that comprise 3-D stainless-steel letters, and/or must be of such an age that they are no longer economically viable to produce or manufacture.


A large, lighted (usually neon) sign that is a landmark due to its extreme size, elaborate animation, variety of colors and obvious expense.   Sign must embody all of these characteristics to be considered as “spectacular.” In all likelihood, such a sign dates from the 1945-1965 period. [The dates should be appropriate for each city.]

Unique sign district

An area of the city, delineated by the city council, that has unusually lavish signs (many of which are historic) that unify and enhance the area’s character.


The following language will provide administrative guidelines for the protection of historic or unique signs.

  1. Other than safety and structural requiremnts, the provisions of this sign ordinance may be waived by the City Council for historic or unique signs upon application for relief by the sign owner or by city-initiated application.
  2. Upon filing of said application, the Design Review Board (or planning commission, one or the other should be specified in the ordinance) may recommend, and the City Council may declare a sign or group of signs to be “historic,” or “unique,” by making findings according to the guidelines below. Notwithstanding safety, maintenance or structural regulations [indicate here the section of your ordinance that deals with safety, traffic hazards and structural integrity), a sign so designated by the City Council shall be deemed to conform with this chapter [the entire remaining sign ordinance should be cited here by article and section number].
  3. Historic or unique sign guidelines. Signs or districts of signs may be so designated upon the finding that they exhibit unique characteristics that enhance the streetscape or the historic identity of the city or neighborhood. The sign shall be found to be an animated sign, ghost sign, historic sign, landmark sign or spectacular (see definitions), the continued existence of which is encouraged and is beneficial to the public good. Such a sign contributes to the historic or cultural character of the streetscape and the community at large.
  4. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the owner of a designated sign from removing such sign. [This provision may be optional, depending on whether or not the sign is within the boundary of a localy designated historic district].

Author Peter Phillips, AICP, is the director of community development for Gloucester, MA. He is also a Board member of the Society for Commercial Archeology.


Photo by Gideon J. Gallegos-Sanchez

Posted in Associations, Blog: Rhetorical, Sign Codes, Wall Signs.