About a dozen years ago, Joe Gilling’s dream of putting a neon Route 66 sign in front of his business fell apart in his hands.
“I bought this sign online. It was huge — it was probably about, oh, I don’t know, probably three foot by three foot. It was an original Route 66 neon sign,” Gilling said. “I had it shipped UPS, and when I got it, it was shattered into a million pieces. I spent a lot of money on it, and I had taken out insurance, and they wouldn’t honor it. They said I opened the container wrong.
“So I ate it. I got the transformer in my shed, and that is it.”
Boy, did that hurt. All these years later, the owner of Ollie’s Station restaurant on Southwest Boulevard can still picture the sign.
“It was Route 66. It was black background with a white neon lit up,” Gilling said. “It was an original sign. Oh, man, I was sick.”
He hasn’t given up on neon, though. The restaurant’s wall clock — the big one that hangs inside just above the miniature train track with the miniature working trains — is surrounded by a red, green and yellow ribbon of neon that reads “Ollies Station.”
So, yes, Gilling was intrigued to hear that the city of Tulsa is working to establish a Route 66 neon sign overlay district.
“It sounds awesome, are you crazy? I just love neon.”
The city’s idea, patterned after a similar one in Albuquerque, N.M., is simple: make it easier to put up a neon sign along Route 66, and give business owners incentives to do so.
“There are a lot of businesses in Tulsa that would be interested in neon signage, but it’s very expensive compared to a plastic box that is backlit,” said Amy Brown, deputy chief of staff for Mayor G.T. Bynum. “So really what we are trying to say is, this sign is beneficial for your business, this sign is beneficial to raise the profile of Tulsa’s Route 66, and so we want to help defray some of the added expense.”
The discussions are in the early stages, Brown said, but the incentives being considered include loosening sign regulations to allow for more design and placement options; waiving permitting fees; and offering grants to help cover the cost of the signs.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Property owners along Route 66 interested in applying for a grant to put up a neon sign should e-mail Amanda DeCort at firstname.lastname@example.org.[/perfectpullquote]
The city has yet to determine the boundaries of the overlay district, but it is expected to cover all of the historic roadway that runs through Tulsa save the stretch that courses through the Central Business District. City officials say downtown is being excluded because the zoning code prohibits the use of design overlays within the district.
The neon sign overlay will be put together in such a way as to be respectful of the neighborhoods Route 66 runs through, Brown said, and it won’t apply solely to properties that front the historic roadway.
“They (the boundaries) are going to change a little bit,” she said. “We want to do frontage along the route, but where it is a major intersection… say 11th (Street) and Harvard (Avenue), we might want to go a full block down so we can include some really cool signs that are already there, like Pioneer Cleaners’.”
The city’s zoning code places limits on where a sign can be placed and how big it can be, depending on the underlying zoning of the property. Property owners within the proposed neon sign overlay would see those regulations loosened if they chose to put up a sign with a yet-to-be-determined percentage of neon in it.
Brown said the city still needs to meet with stakeholders and industry officials before presenting its overlay plan to the City Council, which would then be asked to recommend possible zoning changes to the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
Her goal is to have that piece of the process completed by the end of the year.
“We don’t want to give people grant money and then ask them to spend it on bureaucracy,” Brown said. “We really want to remove the impediments and allow people to use the funding to build the most cool, creative signs they can.”
For example, eligible property owners could possibly hang their signs “in the right of way, they can have animation, they could just do some different things” that would allow them to be more creative, Brown said.
If Only He Had Known
How Art Buser wishes the city had been thinking creatively about neon signs a few years ago. Buser, 80, owns the Generations Antique Mall next door to Tally’s Restaurant on the corner of 11th Street and Yale Avenue. When he went to the city a few years ago to apply for a permit to put up a neon sign, it didn’t work out so well.
“One of the things (they said) was it was hanging over the city property,” Buser said. “Well, no one is going to bump their head on it. It has been there since the late 1950s or before, and I think the other thing was that I wanted to change it to neon, which is really dumb.”
Buser got caught up in a tangle of zoning regulations that can sometimes be difficult to navigate and expensive to surmount. For example, if a sign — neon or not — extends into the city right of way, the person wishing to hang the sign must enter into a license agreement with the city and get a variance to the zoning code from the Board of Adjustment.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It’s the ‘50s, kind of retro. We want to be part of the whole Route 66 renewal. We are the last place out of Tulsa or the first place coming in.” – Jim Hardcastle [/perfectpullquote]
Neither is a sure thing, but the costs associated with applying for them are. The city charges a fee for a sign permit, and it costs at least $500 to apply for a variance to the zoning code. Hire a lawyer to help make your case, and the price goes up even more.
Buser said he planned to spend about $13,000 to have his neon sign built but instead went with a less expensive sign that uses primarily LED lighting. The light emitting diode light is fine, he said, but it doesn’t give off the same light as a neon sign, especially during the day, and that matters when you’re trying to draw in customers.
“It is just way more visible,” Buser said of neon signs. “If it was up there with the red neon around it, then I was sure everyone who drove (by) would see it.”
And drive by they do — especially tourists traveling the Mother Road.
“We have had people come in from Australia, Germany and China, you know, England Sweden,” Buser said. “All over the world, really, and all over the United States.”
A few miles east along 11th Street, Jack Patel tells a similar story. He has owned the Desert Hills Motel, 5220 E. 11th Street, for 22 years. The motel’s small entryway is full of colorful Route 66 memorabilia, photos of actors who have shot movies on site, and a framed picture of the motel from when it was built more than 60 years ago.
Almost nothing about the exterior of the motel, including its classic neon sign, has changed over the years. That’s been good for business.
“I have noticed that a lot of tourists are basically more attracted to the sign, and they always ask, ‘Does it light up? Does everything work?’” Patel said.
On the far west side of town, Jim and Sara Hardcastle are also putting their faith in Route 66’s appeal. After running the popular Meltdown Gourmet Grilled Cheese food truck for years, they’ve opened a diner inside an old tire shop at 4377 Southwest Boulevard. They’re going with a neon sign, too.
“It’s the ‘50s, kind of retro,” Jim Hardcastle said of the sign. “We want to be part of the whole Route 66 renewal. We are the last place out of Tulsa or the first place coming in.”
Tulsa and Route 66
Route 66 has a special place in Tulsa’s history. Tulsan Cyrus Avery and Missourian John Woodruff led the effort to establish the Mother Road, a 2,448-mile-long series of roadways that has linked main streets from Chicago to Los Angeles since 1926. So when it came time to decide which roads in Tulsa would become part of Route 66, the map was drawn to run north from 11th Street, up Mingo Road, to what was then called Federal Drive (now Admiral Place), where it bypassed Avery’s property.
Most of that stretch of the roadway, which runs west to approximately Boston Avenue downtown, will be covered by the overlay. The Admiral alignment, as it is called today, was decommissioned in 1932 and replaced with a more direct route through town that runs along 11th Street, through downtown, and onto Southwest Boulevard west of the Arkansas River.
Within Tulsa’s city limits, Route 66 runs 23 miles, from 193 East Avenue to approximately S. 37th West Avenue, just west of the Red Fork neighborhood.
A Long Time Coming
City Councilor Blake Ewing was the first city official to propose creating incentives for people to put up neon signs along Route 66. That was a couple of years ago, when his council aide was Amy Brown.
Now that the city has finished updating its zoning code, which established a process for creating overlay districts, it is working with the Route 66 Commission to push the idea forward.
“Route 66 is one of the unique attributes of our city, with an internationally recognized history, and for a long time in Tulsa it has been a disregarded part of our community makeup,” Ewing said. “It wouldn’t take very many of them (business owners) to switch to neon signs or to put up a new neon sign before that becomes the trend and the kind of expected practice on Route 66.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Neon was quintessential Route 66. We had ridiculous amounts of it. It was just how you did signage back in the day.” – Amanda DeCort[/perfectpullquote]
“And the more that we have the better. It will be a postcard for the city of Tulsa to have neon signs all the way up and down the stretch of Route 66.”
Perhaps the only person more enthused than Ewing about creating a neon sign overlay is Amanda DeCort. DeCort, a former city planner, is executive director of the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture and a member of the Route 66 Commission.
“Neon was quintessential Route 66. We had ridiculous amounts of it,” she said. “It was just how you did signage back in the day.”
Tulsa has always been good about adopting the latest and greatest technology, DeCort said, and neon was no exception. From the 1920s to the early ‘60s, it was all the rage; then it wasn’t.
“It kind of fell out of favor in the mid-century. We thought it was kind of tacky, like Art Deco was viewed in the ’50s,” she said. “But it’s back.”
As chairwoman of the preservation and design committee of the Route 66 Commission, DeCort is spearheading the neon sign grant program.
The commission has approximately $500,000 in Vision 2025 funding that is allocated for Route 66 preservation. A portion of those funds will be used for the neon sign grants.
“We envision it to be a matching grant, so if a business owner can spend five grand, we can put in five grand so they have a really knockout, amazing new neon sign,” DeCort said. “And it is for neon, because it is a traditional medium, and we used to have a ton of it, and we have lost almost all of it.
“We’re bringing it back.”