Neon Tropicana sign lights up Main Library

November 7, 2011

By Teya Vitu


Check out the neon Tropicana Motor Hotel sign colorfully lighting up the Joel D. Valdez Main Library.

The historic Tropicana Motor Hotel neon sign is on display at the Main Library.

The restored historic neon sign went on display at the library Sept. 22 and will remain there through the end of November.

The Tropicana sign is essentially in “storage” awaiting restoration of two more historic neon signs.

By the end of the year, four neon signs from Tucson’s past will create a neon art walk on Pima Community College’s north edge. The signs will light up Drachman Road between Oracle and Stone.

“The idea is there are very few places in town where there is still a concentration of neon signs,” said Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. “It will give a sense of what driving through Tucson in the 1950s and 1960s was like.”

The Tropicana sign will join a Medina Sporting Goods sign (now on display at UA Science: Flandrau), a Magic Carpet Golf sign and an Arizonan Hotel/Canyon State Motor Lodge sign, both now in the closing phases of restoration work.

“It will provide some real color and definition to the Downtown campus,” Clinco said. “One of the really great things about this is the signs are so colorful.”

Clinco did not choose Drachman for this neon display by accident. Miracle Mile to Oracle to that very stretch of Drachman to Stone was how pre-freeway travelers entered and left Tucson.

“That’s the alignment of the old Highways 80 and 89 and Arizona 84,” Clinco said. “This was the historic car road that led into Tucson.”

Enough people still remember those days and those memories are getting triggered as old timers wander by the main library.

“People love it,” main branch manager Karyn Prechtel said. “They come in and have stories about Miracle Mile when they were kids.”

The Tropicana Motor Hotel opened with this sign in 1960 at 617 Casa Grande Highway (today’s Miracle Mile) and remained along the road until the motel was demolished and the sign cut down like a tree in 2004.

The Tropicana sign as you see it glistens and gleams as if it came straight out of an episode of “Mad Men” or “Pan Am.” That’s not what Clinco started with when Lance Lesney donated the sign to the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation in early 2011.

“It was very damaged,” Clinco said. “It had bullet holes. The metal was bent and stretched. The lower section of the sign really rusted very badly.”

The neon Tropicana sign will go on permanent display at PCC on Drachman.

The cast behind restoring the Tropicana sign reads like a scroll of movie credits. Buffalo Exchange funded the restoration carried out by Cook & Co. Signmakers. Jude Cook did the project management and layout; Scott Reeves and Isaac Reyes were responsible for crane and rigging work; Steve Gaspard did the wiring; Mike Spronken undertook the metal work and lettering; Sam Richardson was the neon man; layout and patters came courtesy of Rudy Florez; Mike Braun did the painting and Cisco Campista assembled the sign.

“My hope is by doing this we will help reshape how the city views this part of the city,” Clinco said. “Miracle Mile was the major entrance and exit to the city.”

When Interstate 10 first opened, Tucson had only three exits and one was Miracle Mile. But Miracle Mile’s decline started in the late 1960s as more freeway exits opened. Motel owners started selling their properties in 1972 and Clinco said the 1973 oil crises “killed it. It became synonymous with prostitution.”

The timing is perfect for historic preservationists to resurrect neon.

“With ‘Mad Men’ and Pan Am,’ people are enamored with the 1950s and 1960s,” Clinco said. “My hope is it will excite entrepreneurs and investors to say ‘wow, this is something I can consider.’”

Clinco believes other historic signs are in storage, waiting for restoration.

The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation owns the four signs going up on Drachman. Chapman Automotive donated the Magic Carpet sign after the dealership bought the mini golf property, and the Medina Sporting property owners also donated that sign.

The foundation purchased the Arizonan Hotel sign. Clinco said one side of that sign will be painted the original Canyon State Motor Lodge colors and the other side the Arizonan Hotel colors from the 1970s.

The timing to erect this neon art walk does coincide with the City Council’s June 28 revision to the sign code to allow restoration of battered and rusting historic signs. Before, the arcane city sign code did not allow building owners to take down old sign, fix them up, and put them back up. But leaving signs up in disrepair was acceptable.

Because the signs will be on state land, the city sign code does not apply, but the foundation waited for the code change anyway.

“The sign ordinance has really allowed for this project to move forward in a meaningful way,” Clinco said. “We waited until after the sign code was changed until we moved forward. We want to be a demonstration of what could be done with it.”

These four signs will be included in a driving guide with the working title “The Neon Pueblo.” The 30-page booklet, funded by the Arizona Humanities Council, should be available throughout the community by the end of the year.