July 24, 2017
Although not always the first thing to come to mind as a cultural resource in need of preservation, neon signs are a unique form of art that exist at the crossroads of 20th century popular history and the preservation of what can make a community unique. And they look cool doing it. Join us as Paul Greenstein, an expert in creating and restoring neon signage from Los Angeles, California, shares some of his knowledge of how exactly neon works, what it takes to restore an old sign, and the state of the neon sign community today. Shine on, you crazy noble gases, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] Historic preservation isn’t always just about the buildings. This week I spoke with Paul Greenstein, an expert in creating and restoring neon signage. From the glass to the gas, Paul is here to share with us the tricks of the trade and some of the history of this unique twentieth-century art form. Paul has experience working with everyone from the Museum of Neon Art to the TV show American Restoration, so he’s truly the go-to guy for neon signs. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Reading and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we’re joined by Paul Greenstein who began working in neon with a bend towards modern commercial work back in 1977. He restored his first sign in 1979 and has been at both ends of the neon sign world ever since. He restores old motorcycles, cars, and pretty much anything of interest. And today we’re going to be talking to Paul about all things neon. Paul, it’s a pleasure to have you on PreserveCast today.
[Paul Greenstein] Well, thank you very much. It’s flattering to be here.
[NR] So where are we talking to you right now? Where are you located?
[PG] I’m in sunny, southern California, which is completely overcast and right on the cusp of raining right now. So it should be kind of familiar to you guys.
[NR] Yeah. Although, actually I have to tell in Maryland right now it’s bright and sunny. We’re sitting in sun. We’ve switched roles. So for everyone that we bring on PreserveCast, we always want to know how they got involved in all of this. And you’re in a very interesting niche of preservation being neon signage and preservation. How did you get involved in that? How did it first take off back in the 1970s?
[PG] Well, like everybody else in their early twenties, I was totally aimless and wandering. [I] had no idea what I was going to do with myself other than day-to-day. And I had a friend who had a neon shop and I used to like to just hang out there. We’d talk and I’d watch him. I was making jewelry at the time. This is the late 70’s, . And one of the stores I worked for said, “You know you do a really good job with this stuff, can you make us a sign”? And I went, “Hmm, I like neon. I know something about it. I’ve watched it. Doesn’t mean I can do it. Why not?”
So I made a sign and in retrospect, I think… It wasn’t that spectacular. But at the time anybody making a new neon sign and making it out of disparate materials – I used cast resin, I used plastics, I used metal – and then putting it up on the Sunset Strip that was kind of like, “Wow, that was really amazing.” So then people started calling me saying, “You did that. Can you do this”? And so I got into the neon sign business.
[NR] And so you started, obviously, by creating new signs, but –
[NR] – it doesn’t seem like it’s a big jump then from creating a new sign to fixing an old one.
[PG] Well, you get a reputation for doing it people are, of course, always asking you to fix it. So by default, you’re always fixing old ones and it’s always somebody else’s work. I was the kind of kid that took things apart, either smashed them up or put them back together, and I always like old neon signs.
Once again, going back to the 70’s when I was a kid I really like the old neon signs. I remember going to Virginia City back in the 60’s in Nevada and I liked all the buildings, but I really liked the signs. My carry away memory of Virginia City in 1965 was the signs. When I started seeing things coming down or needing repair, “Boy,” I thought, “I’d better be there because that’s the perfect confluence of what I like.”
[NR] So what was the first sign that you restored?
[PG] First one I restored was the Columbia Drugstore, unfortunately, now gone. Because it was a neon sign and they tore down the building and nobody saved it. I tried to save it, but that would have been about 1978 or . And it was a late 1920’s neon sign, really super, super Art Deco paint work, ripple tin, raised letters. Beautiful sign. And I restored it for them. Like I said, unfortunately, the building got demolished about five years after that.
[NR] Wow. So why don’t you take us through for someone who doesn’t know much about neon. For the layperson, how does neon work? You kind of look at it and it sort of almost looks like magic. But what’s the process? How does a neon sign actually come together?
[PG] It is. It kind of comes under let’s say Tesla’s theories that if you bombard something enough with enough power it’s going to change, something’s going to happen. So neon signs works on high voltage. A typical neon transformer is 15,000 volts and you could have five or six of them. You could have a 100,000-volt neon sign, not unusual. The tubes themselves are sealed glass in a vacuum. You introduce the gas or the material that you’re going to burn and the high power excites the molecules and makes the color. Neon itself, the different colors you see, are either the gas, the glass, or paint on the inside of the glass. So those are combinations that change and you can have like forty, fifty different combinations of that colors.
[NR] And so when you’re actually – when you’re building a neon sign I guess the shop that you do this in must be pretty tremendous. You must have a lot of tools and a lot of – I mean it doesn’t sound like an easy thing to jump right into to put these together.
[PG] When you’ve kind of figured out the engineering of how something’s going to work and be installed, doesn’t get that hard. Obviously, you need sheet metal breaks to make a cam. You need benches to bend the glass – gas benches – to bend the glass on. You need a pump, a bombarder to evacuate and reintroduce gas into the tube. If you were doing it yourself you could do it in your garage. And I know a lot of people that do do neon in their garage and they have very excellent products.
[NR] So when it comes to restoring a neon sign then I guess it’s a similar process to creating a new one. But why don’t you take us through that? Someone says, “Hey, I’ve got this neon sign, it’s for an old ice cream store here.” I’m thinking of one here in Maryland actually that I know someone wants to restore. And it’s falling apart, it doesn’t light up anymore. How do you tackle that? I mean are you trying to save as much of the original as you can? Maybe you could give us an example of a project that you worked on and kind of take us through how you did it.
[PG] Well, the first things to do is you look at what was this thing made of when it was new? Can it come down? Does need to stay up here and be worked on? So I’ll give you two examples. There’s a restaurant in Los Angeles called Cole’s. And I think they’ve been in business since 1903 or 1904. In the early 30’s they put up a sign that says Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and French Dip Sandwiches. It’s a nice sign. So they asked me to restore it.
Well, the first thing I did is I had to get a crane to get up and look at it. I got a crane, got up in a bucket because it’s over the sidewalk and over the street and it’s really hard to access. But the first thing I figured out is if this thing was made with porcelain. So all the “paint” is actually glass porcelain and it had been painted over ten times. So the first thing we did was strip it. We spent about two days stripping all the old paint off and we found the original sign underneath, which was actually a little different than what was there. That’s where we established the ground, the bottom, and then you work upwards. You go, “Okay. Well, these housings are broken, we need to replace that. This glass is gone, we need to make new glass. This wiring is junk, we need to replace this. The metal here has to be fixed.” But that was all done off of a crane on-site.
One of the more recent jobs I did was for a Hotel Californian near MacArthur Park out here. It had originally been an old hotel from the mid 20s. They put a sign up on the building in the late 20s. The building was demolished around 1995 but the city saved the sign for whatever reason, put it in a park and it sat in the park for twenty years. They asked me to restore it. By the time I got it, oh, it was terrible. The metal was rotted away in parts. It had been cut in half, stepped on, jumped on, folded. Most of the metal work I had to do on this thing, I had to go to an auto body shop and use their tools – you know, frame straighteners, things like that – to straighten it out. All that work was done in the shop and then installed on the roof. In the case of that one, we had to go below zero to get it back to zero to figure out what it needed to restore it. If that makes sense.
[NR] Yeah it does. And let me ask, so now when you’re doing these projects and, obviously, you can remove paint and kind of figure out what the original ceramic scheme was or something like that. How do you know what the original colors would have been in terms of the neon signage itself?
[PG] Well, let me back up a little bit and answer a question you didn’t ask which is, how do I know what the colors are? Old paints will a lot of times etch metal. So when you strip something, you can find old patterns by looking really carefully at the metal. You’ll find pinstriping and little bits of original paint that have etched into the metal so you can tell colors.
[PG] I’ve been pretty successful with that. You get something, you metal strip and you go, “Ah, that’s what it looked like originally” because these thing have been abused for sixty, seventy years. Now as far as glass colors, there’s two ways I do that. One, anything in America before mid-1930s it’s kind of a soft – there isn’t a hard, best date. But anything prior to the mid 1930s was either red, blue or uranium green. Those are the only colors they had.
The phosphorescent ones that we associate with neon today, that was all invented in the late ’20s in Europe and it didn’t really get to America till the late ’30s. So when you see the pinks and the vibrant greens and the things like that, they didn’t exist. So I did the sign for a hotel roof called Castle Argyle and it was originally built in about 1928 and that was a sign that I took down. I had it metal stripped. When I metal stripped it, I found the original colors and the original striping plus all the original paint details that had been covered up for sixty years and then extrapolated from the color details as to what the glass would have been within the parameters of red, blue, green. So I think – there’s no way to prove it – but I think I replicated everything right.
[NR] Wow, that’s really interesting. A lot of work going into this. When you do a restoration project though, how long can these signs last in the field? Obviously they do hold up; they don’t always stay lit. They can be 70 or 80 years old it sounds like and still be salvageable. But under good decisions, how long can a restored neon sign last out in the wild?
[PG] Well, if you mean in the wild as outdoors, obviously outdoors is going to be a lot more punishing. I have indoor beer signs that were made in the early – 1934, right after Prohibition Repeal. So those things are 84 years old and they still run. Now outside, well you’ve got weather, you’ve got birds, you’ve got vandalism. We have a problem in California, which is one you’d never think about, but it doesn’t rain enough. And, you know, you think electricity and water, “Hmm what could be wrong with that?” Well, what happens here is that the dirt and grime of a city builds up inside a sign so that when it does rain, there’s so much muck inside the connectors, the things shorts out. But I tell customers if we do a good job – that’s the line in the sand – if we do a good job, ten years without any problem and usually I’m right.
[NR] Okay, so they can go about ten years. As a follow-up to that though –
[PG] Let me just interrupt really quick saying –
[PG] Ten years generally without a problem. They could go 30, 40, 50 years without anything major being done to them if you’ve done it right.
[NR] Right. Well maybe now is actually a good time to take a quick break and then we can come back and I want understand more about restoration work on some of these and also maybe talk a little bit about the sustainability of these signs and efficiency and all those good things. So we’ll do that when we come back right here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Neon signs aren’t the sole domain of folks in the West Coast and Las Vegas. We’ve got some neon icons right here in Baltimore . While I don’t want to exclude any of the landmark pieces like the sign over the Baltimore Sun building or the Mr. Bo head on the old Gunther’s Brewing Company building in Brewers Hill, there’s really only only one sign that dominates the skyline and for many Marylanders just screams Baltimore. I’m, of course, talking about the Domino Sugar sign overlooking the Inner Harbor.
The last of the massive industrial plants that once defined the Inner Harbor, the Domino Sugar plant is still open and has been since 1922. In fact, not only open but in terms of production, the refinery is booming. Annually producing approximately 14 percent of the amount of sugar consumed in the United States and that is from the Baltimore plant alone. But we’re here to talk about the sign, and there are some similarly enormous facts to mention about it as well.
The entire sign uses 650 neon tubes to illuminate a metal framework that is 120 x 70 feet. That is 8,400 square feet. That is larger than of infield of Camden Yards; and it’s standing straight up in the air! The sign is not yet as old as the rest of the refinery but still has plenty of history with the city. It was built in 1951. It’s been featured in films by Baltimore legends like Barry Levinson and in countless photographs and posters of the Baltimore skyline. It was only an afterthought to Domino Sugar. Who would have guessed in the 1950s that the sign would have become a symbol to many residents of the city’s industrial prowess? Its red-orange glow has been cast in the cityscape almost every night without fail, except for maintenance purposes and one short period during the energy crisis of 1970s. Today, solar panels have been installed on the roof of the plant to help power the sign through the night. If I want to be honest, Paul’s got little more expertise with neon than me, so I won’t keep on talking about neon. This is PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an e-mail to email@example.com, and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today, we are joined by Paul Greenstein who is an expert in all things neon; and we’re talking to him about creating new neon signage as well as restoring and repairing historic neon signage. And when we last spoke, we just sort of talked about how long sign might last under decent conditions outside and talked a little bit about that. We were just beginning to have a conversation about the the sustainability of these. I mean, the average American in their home – light bulbs have changed a lot. I mean, I know personally I just switched over pretty much everything in my house to LED light bulbs, and they’re a whole lot cheaper to operate. What does it cost to operate one of these big neon signs and is there a way to fix that? Should we fix that? Is that kind of damaging to the resource? What are your thoughts about all that?
[PG] One of the great things about neon is that it actually pulls less or an equivalent as the new LED. So the LED is kind of a scam, a little bit, because LEDs are new technology and like all new technologies, they’re voracious and they want to kill everything that came before. But if you’re running a neon sign, they work on milliamps. So a 15,000 volt transformer works on 30 milliamps. That’s really low power draw. It costs pennies a day so…
[NR] So there’s really no reason you’re not having to change this around or change the makeup of these signs. You can kind of keep them as is and they don’t really cost a whole heck of a lot to run.
[PG] No. That’s really, really true. The problem is because LEDs are a new technology, everyone’s going, “Oh, well, let’s switch over. We’ll get ‘green credits’ for having this new technology.” So there’s a lot of switchover from neon to LED tubes that kind of look like neon but they don’t work very well and they don’t look good. They don’t have whatever indescribable vibrancy that the neon sign has. They look kind of –
[PG] I don’t know if you’ve seen anything like that?
[NR] Yeah. Yeah. And I think that there’s questions about that. But obviously, when it comes to neon, it seems like there’s nothing quite like an original neon sign.
[PG] Right. Also, neon is the craft, and LEDs are not a craft [laughter]. LEDs, basically, you take a flexible vinyl tube, and you stick it on there and you walk away. Neon has to have an accomplished bender, and to be an accomplished bender, you they classically say seven years of bending before you’re accomplished.
[NR] Is that a challenge like it is in the rest of preservation community? I mean, we think about it in the terms of masons and carpenters and all those sorts of things and some of the skills sets that we’re losing. But are there people still getting into neon? Is there enough interest in it particularly in a place like California or Nevada where you have quite a bit of it?
[PG] It ebbs and flows. I’ve seen it come and go a couple of times. When I first started doing it in the late ’70s, I had people say, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m doing neon stuff.” And even the supply houses would go, “Are you crazy?Are you mental? Is something wrong with you?” And then it was real popular in the late ’70s, early ’80s and that kind of went into decline and then it came back. Right now, it’s actually on the rise because the biggest problem in the neon sign business today is availability of material. So at one point, the major glass supplier declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy and you couldn’t buy housings so you couldn’t put together a sign. It’s not that the craftsmanship wasn’t there but the materials weren’t. It’s getting a little easier again. Some stuff that was really good material to work with is just gone. They’ve changed the formula on some of the glasses that’s not as good. It’s more susceptible to breakage, but you can still get stuff.
[NR] Yeah, and I think that that’s the challenge that a lot of people are facing particularly with mid-century modern historic resources. So resources from the mid part of the twentieth century where we can’t always get even the things that were being used then. Not a case of not wanting to get the right thing it’s just sometimes it’s just not even produced anymore.
[PG] What’s really interesting is because I come from a world of motorcycle restoration; and what happens is, once again – when I first started doing motorcycle restoration – you could buy all the original parts you wanted cheaply. The stuff wasn’t worth anything. Then it became more and more expensive and more and more rare. And then there’s a tipping point at which now you can get things again cheaper because it’s all-new made, right? So now there’s people that are catering to a small clientele that are well-funded that do motorcycles and the same kind of thing will happen with neon.
[NR] Interesting. Now, in terms of the gases and things like that, costs rising there too? Is that difficult as well?
[PG] That’s negligible. Everything goes up but the cost of the gas is not that much. You spend $80 for a flask of neon that’s not a big deal because that’ll fill – I don’t know – a thousand feet of tubing or something ridiculous.
[NR] Wow! So let’s shift the conversation here for a second. For someone listening who perhaps owns a neon sign and would like to save it. Or someone who’s in a community and there’s sort of this kind of iconic neon sign and they’re worried about it and they want to save it or they want to preserve it and protect it, what would be your advice to them? If someone called you and you personally couldn’t do it for them because maybe of distance or something like that but they wanted to go out and save this. What are the recommendations? What are the steps for someone who’s interested in doing that?
[PG] I’ll tell you a great story with kind of a bad ending and this is a dirty, dark state secret that I’m revealing here. There’s a show called American Restoration, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one?
[NR] We have.
[PG] Okay. Well, they called me up one time and they needed a neon sign guy. So they wanted me to restore this sign. I said, “Sure.” And the back story on it was that a small town in Kansas had a neon sign that they considered a historical resource and was in really bad shape. They didn’t even know how bad it was and they wanted to get it restored. And they wanted a little publicity so they sent it to American Restoration who sent it to me. And when I got it it was just an absolute disaster. The thing was just full of pigeon poo and rotted out and garbage. I would never say anything should be thrown away, but this was about right on the cusp of “throw it away.” And I wound up having to make about 60 percent of it.
The cool thing about the story was that these people had bake sales and raffles and they sold hats, and cups, and everything to raise the money to restore the sign, which was just – I love that story and I actually, for better or for worse, kind of gave them a good deal on the restoration; but I had to go through the TV show, who kind of screwed everything up. But that’s another story. But the point is is that it was just all local action in a small town in Kansas with like one main street. It was a fantastic story.
[NR] That’s great. If someone was looking for a neon signage contractor or someone to rehab a sign, is there anything, sort of a stamp of approval or something that they should be looking for when they start to talk to one of those people, or things that they should be asking them to know that they know what they’re doing and are going to be able to handle a rehab project?
[PG] Sure, sure. So as an example, there is a market in Los Angeles that features neon signs in the market. It’s a big open air market, and it’s kind of disingenuous because they really don’t have any old signs. They have all-new signs. They’ve gotten rid of all the old ones. But there was one, beautiful old sign from the ’30s for a Chinese restaurant, The China Cafe. This thing had original 1930s uranium glass on it. And I went there the other day and they had “restored” it.
The uranium glass was gone, all the neon – and this is a little bit technical. Originally, things went at a 90-degree angle into receptacles into a can known as a raceway. That’s the clean way of doing it. If you’re doing it the cheap way and you don’t want to make a pattern, then you put everything double-backed and you don’t have to do a good job. Well, this thing was all done with double-backs, the glass was all modernized, so it was all went from clear glass to fluorescent. The uranium went in the trash. I saw that thing and I thought, “Give me a gun, I’m going to shoot myself.” Because that was the last of the Mohicans, again. That was it. I’ve never seen another original piece of uranium glass in the city of Los Angeles. Now that one’s gone. They did a bad job.
So if you’re going to talk to somebody, make sure they know what they’re talking about because there’s a lot of people who can bend glass, and a lot of people who can bend glass well. But there aren’t that many people that will take the time and the care to put a sign back together correctly.
[NR] So you want to be focusing on retaining original materials and taking great care. Is there any type of – I don’t know the answer to this, is there any type of professional association of people who do neon work?
[PG] No. There’s the American Sign Museum, which is a place I would highly recommend in Cincinnati, and they’re fantastic. I mean, they really know their stuff. And they have an in-house bender and all that. So you can confer with someone like that. There’s a Neon Sign Museum in Las Vegas, but that’s mostly just a sign graveyard. And then there’s the Museum of Neon Art here in Los Angeles and there’s experts, but you need to contact those museums a lot of times.
[NR] Okay, that makes a lot of sense.
[PG] You know, if I may pontificate for a minute, you’ve kind of brushed on the nature of what is a restoration. And is a restoration just fixing something up and making it work or is a restoration, as I’m fond of saying, passing information from the past to the future? That’s what we’re doing as restorers. We’re a courier from the past to the future. I try and use original materials, original everything as much as possible so that somebody who comes and looks at thing in 50, 100 years goes, “That’s how they did it back in the 30s.” Not how I did it, not how Paul restored it, but that’s how it was done in the 30s. Now we know.
[NR] Yeah. And I think that what you’re getting at is just sort of the ethos of preservation itself.
[PG] Absolutely. If you restore a 1928 Chevy and you put a V8 motor with a cheater slick rear end and a Mustang front end, and a this, and a that, and all this stuff, you’re not preserving the information for the future. You’re preserving yourself.
[NR] Well, speaking of preserving, before we depart here, what would be – if you had to pick one, and I know this is generally pretty hard for people who work day in and day out on projects like this. But do you have a favorite neon sign project that you’ve worked on in your long career?
[PG] Well, that’s like asking me which motorcycle is my favorite. It’s the one I’m riding. And then I have to think, well, my favorite one is, of course, the first one I ever did. But the one I pass by all the time over in Hollywood, it’s called Castle Argyle. It’s in the foothills, right next to the freeway so that you can see it. The guy who built it in 1928 would recognize it, let’s just say that. He would go, “Oh, yeah, nothing’s been done to it” because it’s the same colors, the same paint schemes, the same glass, the same everything, which is radically different than it was when I got it. I’m pretty proud of that one and it’s been running non-stop for about seven or eight years now.
[NR] Well, Paul, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. If someone wanted to get a hold of you and maybe they’re out in your area and they have a sign that they’d like you to take a look at and maybe work on a little bit, how do they find you?
[PG] I’m in a little bit in a state of flux right now because I’m going to have to move my shop in the next couple of months so I can’t really in good faith say come and see me at the shop. I’m in the phone book. That would probably be the best way is I’m in the phone book. I don’t know –
[NR] Old school, I like it.
[PG] Yeah, I don’t keep a website. Not purposely, but I kind of make myself a little difficult to find. So if you want to find me, you have to want something that I can give.
[NR] All right; I like it. Well, Paul, it’s been a pleasure talking with you and I really appreciate your insight and also all the good work you’ve done to save this important piece of American history. So thank you and thanks for talking with us today.
[PG] I appreciate it. It was a pleasure.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Did you know!? The historic Domino Sugar sign in Baltimore City is the largest neon sign in the world!