Bright Lights Coming Back to Diving Lady Sign

March 15, 2012

By Teya Vitu

The diving lady neon sign, perched above 6th Avenue for maybe 60 or more years, came down March 13 for its long-awaited rehabilitation to its 1950s glowing splendor.

The diving lady sign is now in the shop for restoration.

By mid-April, neon should be blazing again through the night at the Pueblo Hotel & Apartments office building, 145 South 6th Avenue, the first time since at least 1974 that the worn and faded diving lady has been illuminated.

“We’re very excited,” said attorney Barry Davis, a partner at Piccaretta Davis and co-owner of the building. “We’re going to cover the sign, have a party, pop some champagne, and unveil the sign.”

Jude Cook at Cook & Co. Signmakers thinks it will take him about a month to restore the diving lady so the champagne should be popping right around the day that IRS returns pour into post offices.

Davis had wanted to start the new year with a lighting ceremony, but getting various city permits and committee approvals extended his wait until March. On January 19, the diving lady sign was the second sign in Tucson given the designation of historic landmark sign by the Tucson Planning & Development Services Department upon the recommendation of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission.

Davis and his co-owners have essentially waited to spiff up the diving lady since they bought the former Pueblo Hotel building in 1991. They have wanted to restore the neon sign throughout the last two decades, but the were stopped by an arcane city sign code that did not allow building owners to take down old signs, fix them up, and put them back up.

Leaving signs up in disrepair was acceptable. It was a Catch-22: leave old signs up or take them down without being allowed to put them back up.

The City Council revised a sign code June 28 to allow restoration of battered and rusting historic signs.

“This sign is the poster child for the revision of the sign ordinance,” said Jonathan Mabry, the city’s historic preservation officer. “These are the visual landmarks of our community that really connect us to our post-World War II past. That was the period when Tucson growth exploded. We’re starting gain an appreciation for the historic value of mid-20th century structures.”

That same day, Davis made a call to recruit a sign maker and start lining up the various sign and historic approvals.

Nobody immediately knows how old the sign is, likely early 1950s, possibly 1940s – whenever the “swimming pool” and “refrigerated” emblazoned in neon on the sign were installed.

Nobody even knows just what the sign originally looked like. It certainly wasn’t the fading green gracing that corner across from Armory Park for several decades.

“The green you see on the sign is likely 20 shades lighter than it was,” Cook said.

But was it even green at the beginning?

“The Pueblo panel had more of a wood grain effect,” Cook said. “It appears to me some of the top panel was green.”

The diving lady sign as three separate panels:

• The lady on the diving board with a panel saying “swimming pool” on top.

• A thin strip saying “refrigerated” in the middle.

• A large panel with the words Pueblo Hotel and Apartment stacked vertically.

Different layers of paint were revealed when a touch of graffiti was removed from the lower right corner of the Pueblo panel. That’s when the possible wood grain effect came to light.

“What we’re going to do is carefully remove some layers of paint down to what it ready had,” Cook said.

Cook has become the go-to signmaker for restoring historic neon signs. This is his fifth restoration. The Tropicana Motor Hotel sign recently joined the Medina Sporting Goods sign, a Magic Carpet Golf sign and an Arizonan Hotel/Canyon State Motor Lodge sign at Pima Community College’s north edge, along Drachman Road between Oracle and Stone.

Cook also restored the Monterey Motel sign that graces the recently opened Monterey Court art colony, and he has the Arizona Motel and Thunderbird Curios signs in his shop right now.

“(The diving lady) is physically in better shape than the other ones we’ve done,” Cook said.

He will hand paint the sign, install all new wiring and transformers and “virtually all new neon.”

The sign will look as close to original as possible – with one exception: the “refrigerated” will be replaced with Piccaretta Davis to offer a bit of clarity that the building is an office rather than a hotel and apartment. The owners are spending about $25,000 to restore the diving lady.