Diving Lady Sign is Alighted and Well

May 14, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Bright paint, cool neon and a polka-dot bikini now adorn the Pueblo Hotel & Apartments neon sign that had stood dark, faded and rusted at the corner of 6th Avenue and 12th Street for a good four decades.

The Diving Lady neon is glowing for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Restored 1950’s Tucson neon history has started lighting the nighttime streetscapes in recent weeks.

Four neon signs from a bygone era have graced the north edge of the Pima Community College Downtown Campus on Drachman Road since April 25. The colorful neon tubes were illuminated on April 27 on these good-as-new signs from the Tropicana Motor Hotel, Medina Sporting Goods sign, the Magic Carpet Golf sign and an Arizonan Hotel/Canyon State Motor Lodge sign.

The Pueblo Hotel & Apartments sign, aka the Diving Lady, followed suit as signmaker Jude Cook reinstalled the sign at its original location on May 8, did finishing electrical touches on May 9, and joined the building’s co-owner, Barry Davis at the Diving Lady’s grand lighting and robe unveiling on May 11.

Public interest in the Diving Lady has been especially intense.

“It is very apparent that the people around here have ownership of that sign,” said Davis, who has wanted to restore the Diving Lady since he moved his law office into the building in 1993. “I honestly can’t say I expected this much attention. I’m surprised by it. It makes me happy.”

Cook, owner of Cook & Co. Sign Makers, restored the Diving Lady and all the PCC Drachman signs except Magic Carpet. The Diving Lady stands out for him, largely because its in the same location as its been since about 1950 and it’s in the heart of Downtown.

“This is the poster child of restoration,” Cook said. “It’s the first real total restoration. (Rusting) was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. All in all, she was in pretty good shape.”

So far, neither Cook, nor Davis, nor the historical preservation team that made this project possible, really know what the Diving Lady sign said when it was first put up, what the original color scheme was, or even exactly what year the sign first went up. Based on its metal structure, the closest guess Cook has is about 1950.

The sign comes in four sections: the one that says “swimming pool” and is topped by the diving lady; a narrow strip that said “refrigerated” before the restoration but now announces the building’s present tenants, the Piccaretta Davis law firm; the largest section that says Pueblo Hotel & Apartments; and the panel with “no vacancy” and “hotel parking”

“There was a certain amount of hesitation when we started sanding,” Cook said. “We found a bunch of stuff that just didn’t make sense. There was a gold color that didn’t match the green. The “refrigerated” panel had scalloping waves. We found some blues. They did not go with the greens.”

Cook discovered different layers of green almost to the base of the Pueblo Sign. He discovered a wood grain waterboard look on all four panels, but he chose to only replicate the waterboard look on the Pueblo panel with a black outline of wood planks.

Cook decided to make all the signs the same green. The Pueblo sign he gave ivory letters with an orange outline, and the other panels got white letters with a black outline.

The 1950 look of the diving lady herself was a complete mystery. Cook went with a green bathing suit with white polka dots.

“We did a two-piece bathing suit,” Cook said. “We don’t know if it originally was a one-piece or a two-piece. We had nothing to work with. We went with what the attorneys wanted.”

The Diving Lady was completely rewired and all the neon – shade of aqua and white – are brand new. Cook was amazed to discover it took 200 feet of neon to build all the words.

The most time-consuming aspect of restoring the Diving Lady was Cook’s hand-lettering.

“I put in 20-25 hand lettering,” Cook said. “ I have not pushed a brush for that long in 10-15 years. All the white is triple coated. I double coated all the orange.”

People may see a nostalgic Diving Lady sign at 145 S. 6th Ave., but for Davis restoring the sign is a crusade dating back to when he and partners bought the building in 1991. Since the day Davis occupied the building in 1993, he’s wanted to fix up the Diving Lady, which had been dark at night since at least 1974.

“To me, it’s not the lighting of the Diving Lady. To me it’s a glimmer of hope that our city government is figuring out the forest through the trees,” Davis said.

Davis was hamstrung 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.

Davis applied several times since 1993 to restore the Diving Lady but was always denied – until the City Council revised the sign code on June 28, 2011, to allow restoration of battered and rusting historic signs.

That came following an 18-month effort to revise the sign code ordinance, prompted by Davis’ most recent application. The city’s historic preservation officer, Jonathan Mabry, took up the cause, as did Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation; and the city’s sign code administrator, Glenn Moyer.

“Those three guys spearheaded this,” Davis said.

The new sign ordinance allowed historic designation to be assigned to the PCC/Drachman signs, the Diving Lady and the Hotel Congress sign.

“Each one of these signs brightens Tucson’s history a little,” Clinco said. “This represents the eclectic, modern, mid-century America. It’s alive. It’s on. If you turn on the lights, people will come.”

What it also represents for Davis is a bit of sanity in redrafting historic regulations. Since Davis was paying the restoration cost, he insisted he be allowed to put the Piccaretta Davis law firm name into the sign – unless the city wanted to pick up the restoration cost.

That, naturally, created a stir with the committee evaluating the sign code ordinance recommendation. Mabry went to bat for Davis.

“When we worked on the sign code ordinance, we added a criteria that adaptive reuse be allowed,” Mabry said. “We can do new as long as the character defining issues are preserved.”

Historic preservation can be ticklish at very best. Case in point: the Pueblo Hotel & Apartments building. What is the proper historic preservation for a structure built in 1903 with a sign from 1950? That has a Pueblo Hotel sign even though no Pueblo Hotel has operated there for more than 40 years? Especially since the hotel name was changed from Willard to Pueblo when the Diving Lady may or may not have already been in place?

“We believe in preserving the tone of Tucson that will continue to make us distinguishable,” Davis said. “Within that, you have to be practical.”