Sometimes you just have to rescue a big, pretty sign from a building that is about to be demolished.
“That’s what I think, anyway,” said Donna Reiner of the Arizona Vintage Sign Coalition. “If the sign is a good one, you just have to step in and try to save it.”
Rescuing a giant sign was more difficult during the Christmas holiday season, she pointed out. “But then it’s also easier to get a huge sign down off a building when that building is going to be torn down. Because then we don’t have to be careful not to damage the building. And in this case, that building is now as flat as a pancake.”
She was referring to the Maroney’s Cleaners and Laundry sign on East Indian School Road. The longtime local dry cleaner was relocating because its strip mall location was being torn down, and Reiner was determined to rescue and preserve the towering, lighted eight-piece nameplate.
“I never get used to it,” Reiner said of all the tear-downs. “I’ll drive by and see a building going up and I’ll think, ‘I know something else was there before. But what was it? Like that little parking lot next to the Orpheum Lofts. There’s a Hyatt there now. It went up practically overnight.”
Reiner and a handful of other like-minded preservationists cofounded the Sign Coalition several years ago. “We keep our eyes on signs,” she explained. “Old ones, and primarily neon ones. The Maroney’s sign isn’t neon, but it’s so iconic and so pretty, that we said ‘yes’ when they called us to come get it.”
The coalition got a call from Alison King of the preservation group Modern Phoenix. “The Maroney’s people told her, ‘We’ve got this sign, but it’s got to be out of here by next week.’ Let’s just say it was a short turnaround. If you add in the holiday season and COVID and the fact that the company we use to remove signs for us was booked solid, well. It was a challenge, but we got it done.”
Usually, the coalition had more time to remove a sign, she said. She was grateful to have had help in saving the Maroney’s sign from colleagues at the Arizona Preservation Foundation, the Mesa Preservation Foundation and Preserve PHX, another local history project.
She admitted that the coalition keeps mum about where it stashes all the big lighted signage they salvage. “It’s out in Mesa and it’s a secret site,” was all she would say. “It’s that way so that we sign lovers can make sure the signs stay safe. We have that beautiful Watson’s Flowers sign, and the Bill Johnson’s Big Apple sign. We’ve got a Moe Allen sign. There might be a motel or two. It’s a healthy collection.”
Meantime, Reiner and others are scouting around for a large enough lot where the signs can be remounted and lighted up again, perhaps in a public sign museum of sorts. “Like they did in Casa Grande,” Reiner said, referring to that town’s Neon Sign Park, home to 14 old lighted signs salvaged from nearby buildings.
“Most people don’t think about the art involved in old signage,” Reiner believed. “But with each sign, there are designers involved. There are neon experts who created the lighting, and there’s the backlit signs and the ones made from certain kinds of special plastic that can survive in the heat.”
Signage is an important part of the local landscape, Reiner believed. Something that got burned into our memories. “We’ve lost a lot of really good ones around here,” she said. “Especially all those neon signs that were on Van Buren. There are still a few of them floating around, but they’re in bad shape.”
She tried not to think about what would happen if the Sign Coalition didn’t exist. “Because most owners would just trash their sign during a tear-down. There’s an immediacy in getting it out of there. And then there’s a healthy business in selling them to private collectors. All those neon aficionados out there, people who travel all over the country looking for neon anything to buy.”
She sometimes felt like she was one among few who cared about old stuff. “I’ve done crazy things,” she admitted. “I once paid to have a mural removed, the one from the Washburn Piano store on Camelback. It was done by the same artist who did all the murals at the Capitol building, and I just could not face having it destroyed. They tore down Washburn, you know, and put up a really crappy bank in its place.”
It’s no mystery to Reiner why she cares about saving Arizona’s visual history. “I think it’s because I’ve always loved history. I just really like old things. They speak of an era, and they do it visually. When people say history is boring, I say, ‘No it’s not. It’s the teacher who’s boring. And a sign is never a boring teacher.”