City Council sees the writing on the wall — and takes the right step to protect historic signs

The best of these vintage signs were part of the urban fabric and contributed as much to a neighborhood’s identity as a landmark building or an important open space, Lee Bey writes.

SHARE City Council sees the writing on the wall — and takes the right step to protect historic signs
Grace’s Furniture is gone, but the vintage sign remains on the building in Logan Square.

Grace’s Furniture is gone, but the vintage sign remains on the building in Logan Square.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

One of Chicago’s best commercial signs — certainly the most unusual — once adorned the former Rosario’s Italian deli in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Anyone who saw it never forgot the sign’s animated neon pigs happily leaping into a moving meat grinder, then coming out on the other side as sausage links spelling out the business’s name.

Rosario’s, at 8611 S. Pulaski Rd., closed in 2016. The sign vanished shortly after.

That’s life in the big city when it comes to retail business signage. Wear, tear, age, or a business closing and — poof — a sign disappears.

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Yet, the best of these signs did more than just tout businesses. They were part of a neighborhood’s identity.

So kudos to the City Council for passing an ordinance last month aimed at protecting some of Chicago’s vintage retail signs.

Under the old law, a new property owner had to rip down old signs if the building’s previous owner let the city-issued sign permit expire.

But the new ordinance lets commercial signs that are at least 30 years old and have some proven “degree of character and nostalgia” remain in place, subject to city review and a renewable five-year permit.

“Our communities are home to so many beautiful, historic signs that new business owners would like to incorporate into their small businesses,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a prime backer of the ordinance, said when the measure was proposed in June before the City Council.

Keeping vintage signs

Efforts to save the Grace’s Furniture building sign, located in Ramirez-Rosa’s ward at 2616-2618 N. Milwaukee Ave., led to the new law.

Developers want to turn the former store into a mixed-use building anchored by the Logan Square Athletic Club.

But the new owners weren’t allowed to keep the vintage three-story vertical sign because the building’s previous owners let the permit lapse.

And it’s a fine sign too: a once-electrified ribbon of red, white, gold and teal that carried the store’s name and the appliances, carpeting and easy credit offered there.

“This ordinance would allow businesses like that to keep the historic sign,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

New law a sign of progress?

The city’s business districts were once filled with signs like the one in Logan Square.

A personal favorite was the dark brown-and-white Jansen’s Furniture sign near 111th Street and Michigan Avenue.

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Jansen’s Furniture sign, near 111th Street and Michigan Avenue.

Lee Bey

Even the smaller ones could be standouts, such as the former Newmann & Associates Real Estate’s sign at 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.

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Sign on a former real estate office at 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, 2006.

Lee Bey

The Jansen’s and Newmann & Associates signs are both gone now, right along with the giant red-lipped neon Magikist rug cleaning signs that flashed kisses at motorists on the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower, Edens and Kennedy expressways. Or the countless others that have been sent to oblivion.

Would the new sign ordinance —introduced by Mayor Brandon Johnson — have saved many of these iconic signs, had it been law then?

Likely not. The ordinance doesn’t grant protected landmark status for the signs. Nor does it require a business owner to keep a historic sign.

But it does change a law that required the wreckage of historic signs. And it should encourage the city to now examine more ways to preserve old signs.

“The intention to make sure our signs are safe and strong and sound cannot come at the expense removing the unique character that makes us the remarkable, world-class city that we are,” Johnson said when the ordinance was introduced.

The law might not yet be full-on preservation. But it’s a sign of progress.

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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