A “Palm Ice Cream” sign was among three refurbished neon signs from decades past that were unveiled in a ceremonial lighting ceremony outside Vancouver Art Gallery Friday night to help mark the start of the Lumière festival, held this weekend.
The two others were “the Cookie,” which was made for The Cookie Jar company that had locations mostly in downtown Vancouver, and the “R” from the old Ridge Theatre.
While the trio were on display for the whole weekend at šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn square, formerly known as VAG’s north plaza, they’re also destined to be exhibited inside the former Canada Post building on Georgia Street through a collaboration between Museum of Vancouver and QuadReal Property Group, a global real estate investment, operating and development company.
The signs are part of the Museum of Vancouver’s collection and QuadReal is redeveloping the 1950s-era post office into an office and retail building rechristened “The Post.” Construction is expected to be finished in a phased completion process between the fall of 2022 and the fall of 2023.
Mauro Vescera, the museum’s CEO, said the annual light festival, which featured interactive art installations at four Vancouver sites — English Bay, Jim Deva Plaza, Lot 19 and šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn square — was an opportunity to announce the partnership with QuadReal while also showcasing the signs.
“It’s about taking these artifacts, which are really objects of civic history that come with stories, and moving them back into the city,” he said.
“Neon in Vancouver is interesting because it was the neon capital of the world in the ’70s. There were almost 20,000 lights at one point. They became kind of unpopular because there were too many of them and they were [seen as] light pollution. They fell out of favour. Twenty years later, they've come back and we're seeing more contemporary neons — they’ve come back into favour. It’s a bit of a cycle.”
The idea of working with QuadReal to have the neon signs installed in the redeveloped former post office a few years from now, Vescera added, is “a great way to tell that story of Vancouver and animate a heritage building.”
Chrystal Burns, senior vice president of retail for QuadReal, said the neon signs fit with The Post's mid-century modern aesthetic and the company wants the building to be a “cultural hub” for the neighbourhood. QuadReal helped with the cost of refurbishing the signs.
“For us, aligning with culture and art and the community means a lot to us. The fact that the museum was looking for folks to help them restore and display these gorgeous works of art was right up our alley… in terms of what we like to do in our communities,” she said.
The signs will be installed in the main level of the building when it’s finished.
“The heritage podium component of The Post will be public spaces and retail spaces, including a food hall, which is around 20,000 square feet. This is the area we think that these neon signs will have the most access to the community, and for the public to see them and view them and enjoy them,” Burns told the Courier.
Larissa Jacobson, vice president of retail leasing at QuadReal added that “it’s important to preserve the building’s heritage and create a vibrant hub for the growing, diverse community of Crosstown."
“Having these neon signs on display really feeds into the culture aspect and the heritage from the mid-century,” she said.
The Post redevelopment project will also include numerous other heritage elements. The two large cast-aluminum Arms of Canada by Pearson Iron Works will remain in their current position on the Georgia side of the building, while the bas-relief of the Postman that dates from 1956 will be reinstalled once construction is completed but it will be placed in a more prominent position on the Hamilton side, facing Queen Elizabeth Plaza. A large interior painted mural and a mosaic tile mural will also be reinstalled.
Signs of the times
Neon signs from Palm Dairy, once known as Crystal Dairy Ltd., date from 1935 to 1955. Palm Dairy franchises, which existed throughout the Lower Mainland, displayed the Palm Dairy logo in various forms of neon including portable signs, according to MoV, although no known photos of the signs from the era exist.
“The Cookie” neon sign, circa 1952, was made for the Cookie Jar company, which had branch locations mostly in downtown Vancouver. It was donated to the museum.
It originally included the word “Jar” in neon as well, but when the museum acquired it, that portion was damaged and couldn’t be restored.
Neon Products Company of Vancouver manufactured the sign — it was the most prolific manufacturer of neon signs in Western Canada and produced other well-known signs, including ones for Regent Tailors, Aristocratic Restaurants and BowMac.
The giant “Ridge” neon sign was installed at the theatre at Arbutus and West 16th between 1949 and 2013, at which point the building was knocked down to make way for redevelopment. (A LED replica of the sign was erected on top of the new development.)
The Ridge Theatre was widely known for its repertory cinema and film festivals, as well as for being the only theatre with a crying room for caregivers and babies. The museum has the entire Ridge sign, but due to time constraints only the “R” has been restored so far. The rest of the sign might be restored for The Post project, although that remains undecided at this time.
While the museum restored all the neon signs, they’re not meant to be perfect — the goal was to protect their character and patina. Flaking paint and interior rusting was stabilized, and broken or missing glass tubing was replaced.
Vescera said although the signs used to be installed outside, they are now historic artifacts so the interior of The Post will be a natural gallery space where they will be protected from the elements.
“They'll be in, essentially, a gallery space — in a public space, in a building that's historically significant. We think [it will be] a great little satellite exhibition for the museum and for the city.”