Chicago’s neon signs go dark as businesses close, repair costs mount

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CHICAGO — Dylan Thomas once wrote: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." He wasn't talking about Chicago, but he could have been when it comes to this city's disappearing neon signs.

These signs have added such a warm glow to Chicago over the course of decades, so Dana from Oak Park had to ask: what's happening to Chicago's neon signs?

According to Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago, the neon sign as we know it today gained popularity starting in the 1920s, and continued into the 1960s. Signs include the "blade" variety that sticks out perpendicular from a building, and mounted signs that adorn the outside.

Randolph Street in 1922
Lights along Randolph Street at night in 1922 [Image courtesy: Chicago History Museum]

"Now that we've only got a handful of these left, sprinkled in neighborhoods, sprinkled in the Loop, they really are special," Miller said.

A long list of iconic signs in the city include Wrigley Field's landmark marquee, Margie's Candies on Western Avenue, and the Congress Hotel downtown. The Drake Hotel had its own iconic neon sign for decades, but it was eventually replaced by cost-efficient LED lights.

"We sometimes forget that these are craftsmen that make these signs, and you know... it's a lost art," Miller said.

There aren't too many people that do what Tom Brickler and his team at Neon Shop Fishtail tackle six days a week, from bending glass into new signs to restoring old ones.

"It's kind of a labor of love, and we're kinda the last men standing," Brickler said.

According to Brickler, many of the iconic signs in the city are disappearing along with the businesses that built them. A car dealership at 850 N. Western, not far from his neon shop, closed recently and the sign was sold to a private collector.

So what makes a neon light so special in the first place? Brickler said it's the glow.

"When you see that glow combined with other colors or in a certain style, you can't take your eyes off it," Brickler said.

Back in 1902, French engineer Georges Claude first inserted neon gas into a glass tube and then added electricity. The neon light was born, and it soon became a favorite of sign makers because of the eye-catching blend of art and science.

A collection of neon signs
A collection of signs is shown in side Fishtail Neon Shop in Bucktown

Brickler said business owners must have been "blown away" at the advertising potential once they realized they could use neon to make such bright signs. While neon gas is naturally red-orange, he said the colors can be changed through using a different gases or colored glass for the sign. Argon gas, for instance, glows a violet color and is used in signs as well.

"The whole idea of this art form electrifies, and it becomes part of the electricity and the heartbeat of the city," Miller said.

Asked why the signs are disappearing in Chicago, Miller said it comes down to permits, maintenance and costs. Every business needs a permit to have a neon sign, and keeping it current requires regular inspections.

Adding a neon sign, especially of the "blade" style that sticks out of a building, requires approval from the City Council. And in an age that prefers a "clean" urban look uncluttered by colorful signs, it's a tough sell. Even then, they're expensive to build.

A neon sign lights up Alcalas Western Wear in West Town

Brickler agrees external signs can be expensive to maintain, noting whenever one needs maintenance it requires a cherrypicker to get access, and pieces need to be taken off and individually re-fashioned to be replaced.

And the odds of a sign that hangs inside a window surviving from the 40s until today without needing some kind of repairs, often leading to them being set aside, is also low, he said.

Whatever the cause, Brickler and Miller agree there is something lost when a historic sign goes dark.

"I think we've lost something each time we lose one of these signs, something very special and there should be a way to protect historic signage and some of these institutions that are old-time Chicago born and bred," Miller said.

In the end, complications with permitting, the cost of maintenance and the availability of cheaper options like LEDs are all factors driving down the use of neon signs.

Dana, we hope you learned something, because we certainly enjoyed bringing this issue to light.

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