By Heather M. David
“Because of a still substantial sign inventory here, there’s an overwhelming capacity for San Jose to take a leading role in Bay Area sign preservation efforts… But most of all, the great hope is that rallying around sign preservation can become San Jose’s signature…” Genevieve Roja, “Telltale Signs,” article in Metro News, 2001.
Lots of talk. Not much action. We’d been talking about our signs for nearly two decades. And we had lost a number of them during that period of inertia. Enter The San Jose Signs Project.
The San Jose Signs Project is a partnership between the community, historical organizations, and local businesses. We believe that signs are important place markers in our collective story, and that San Jose history should remain in San Jose. The mission of The San Jose Signs Project is threefold: to educate, advocate, and to preserve.
As part of The San Jose Signs Project launch in May 2017, 25 San Jose signs were selected to build a one-day driving tour around. With funding from the San Jose Preservation Action Council’s Jo Drechsler Memorial Fund, their stories were documented and a full-color guide was created. The inspiration for this booklet was a beautiful guide produced by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation called The Neon Pueblo: A Guide to Tucson’s Midcentury Vintage Advertising.
It’s very difficult to choose, but here are five of my favorite signs from The San Jose Signs Guide.
1: Safeway Sign (Former Futurama Bowl Sign)
Promoted as “San Jose’s Newest and Finest Bowling Alley,” Futurama Bowl opened in 1961. Designed by architects Powers, Daly, and DeRosa, Futurama featured 42 “automatic” lanes, a restaurant/cocktail lounge called the “Magic Carpet Room,” and a fitness center called the “Glamorama Room.” After a 30-year run, the bowling alley was closed to be transformed into a Safeway grocery store. All that remains today is Futurama’s quintessentially Googie sign, revamped and repurposed, its towering bowling pin supplanted by a giant Safeway logo. The sign has been so tastefully modified that many do not know that it began its days advertising a bowling alley.
2: Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket Sign
People come from all over the country to photograph San Jose’s Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket sign, but why? As it turns out, San Jose’s KFC bucket is one of the last in the country, and the oldest still standing. The bucket features an illustration of the Colonel and the early “Kentucky Fried Chicken” typeface – both introduced in 1952. But it also includes the slogans “finger lickin’ good” (introduced in 1956) and “North America’s Hospitality Dish” (1956 to 1966). The only other original KFC bucket sign in the United States has a later candy stripe design. It is located in Grinnell, Iowa. How did San Jose’s beloved bucket get spared the wrecking ball? In the mid 1990s, when a new restaurant was under construction, the San Jose Planning Department required the architects to retain the sign.
3: Western Appliance Sign
San Jose’s Western Appliance sign, surely the South Bay’s most spectacular example of neon signage, stands regally on West San Carlos Street, once a major artery to and from the city’s downtown. The 1960s city sign ordinance restricted the construction of a rooftop sign, so the legs of the sign pierce the roof and go straight through the store. There used to be three blinking balls adorning the sign’s spires but the orbs were removed when they proved to be a distraction to planes flying in to San Jose Airport.
4: Stephen’s Meat Products Neon Dancing Piggy
The dapper, dancing piggy of the former Stephen’s Meat Products in San Jose has been happily hoofing it up for over a half century. While many lament the loss of the Stephen’s enterprise itself, demolished in 2007 to make way for new development, there was a widespread sigh of relief when Mr. Piggy was spared the wrecking ball. Having escaped the meat grinder, and demolition, the Stephen’s pig’s main cause for concern these days is deterioration from neglect.
5: City Center Motel Sign
In the 1950s and 1960s, diving ladies appeared on U.S. motel signs to advertise the presence of swimming pools. Once a common sight of the American roadside, these signs have become increasingly rare. The neon diver sign at San Jose’s City Center Motel arrived around 1960, following the addition of a swimming pool to the motel property. She is one of only TWO original motel sign divers left in the entire state of California.
Did you enjoy this article? Join the SCA and get full access to all the content on this site. This article originally appeared in the SCA Road Notes, Summer 2018, Vol. 27, No. 2. SCA Road Notes, informally known as SCA News, is a quarterly publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology. Back issues are available for download.
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