[notranslate][/notranslate][notranslate][/notranslate][notranslate][/notranslate]The Birth of the Neon Heritage Preservation Committee
The Missouri Association’s Neon Heritage Preservation Committee (“NHPC”) was formed by its Board of Directors in July 2006. In view of the success the New Mexico association had had with its neon preservation and restoration program, it was the consensus of the Missouri Association Board that a similar endeavor should be undertaken for our state as well.
The principal purpose of the NHPC would be to find a home for the orphaned neon signs from along Route 66 that came into our possession, and to preserve and restore with historical accuracy those inactive vintage neon signs still remaining at their sentinel post.
The NHPC assembled a team of four professionals from our own Association membership who would later be called “Team Neon” by a St. Louis newspaper when the NHPC was given a “Best of St. Louis” award by it in 2013. In addition to Jim Thole (Committee Chairman), a retired banker/CPA, they are: David Hutson, neon restoration consultant and owner of NeonTime in St. Charles, MO; Esley Hamilton, historical consultant and Preservation Historian for St. Louis County; and Bob Gehl, team advisor and an experienced marketing and program PR man who is also our Membership Services Committee chairman. All four team members reside in the St. Louis area.
As with any new venture, the real challenge is to find that initial opportunity to launch the first successful foray into one’s mission. This opportunity was provided by Mother Nature on May 6, 2007, when a windstorm broke the lower mounting bracket of an inactive Route 66 iconic neon sign that hung above the Donut Drive-in at 6525 Chippewa (alias Route 66) in the City of St. Louis, which has been in operation there since 1952.
Initially, the owners thought the sign, now removed after the windstorm, would simply be scrapped. Eventually, however, they came to realize its historical value to the Road, and with our NHPC encouragement, they elected to restore the sign, rather than scrap it or sell it. A significant factor in this decision was the availability of a National Park Service (NPS) 50/50 cost share grant through its Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to restore original, historic properties along Route 66 during its official lifetime.
The historic, animated sign was restored to its former brilliance on November 1, 2008, and thus began a new tradition – a yearly neon restoration project through the NPS grant program, followed by an annual “re-lighting party” to celebrate the reinstatement of another neon sentinel back to its post!
John Murphey from the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program was in attendance at the Munger Moss Motel relighting celebration in 2010, and in his closing remarks for the ceremony said that “signs such as these are not just calling cards for Route 66; they are local landmarks and symbols of pride.”
And with those final words, we really pinpoint the ultimate underlying reason for the passion to save these historic neon signs. Time has transformed them into something special – they have become cherished members of the community itself.
Neon Signs & Scenes Restored with NHPC Assistance to Date
Donut Drive-in (2008) – Built by John Harter in 1952, ownership eventually passed to his daughter and her husband (Bill Wachter) until 1996, when the four Schwarz brothers bought the business. They still operate this St. Louis donut legend to this day. The neon sign went dark in the early 1990’s, and was the first one restored by the NHPC in 2008. Located at 6525 Chippewa Street, just a few blocks east of the world-famous Ted Drewes. (Cost of neon sign restoration only – $9,800)
Sunset Motel (2009 & 2011) – It was built by the Lovelace family in 1947, and sold to Oliver Lee & Loleta Krueger in 1971. Still in the Krueger family after 44 years, this distinctively styled, 12-room motel is now operated by their daughter and her husband, Connie & Herman Grimes, as a weekly rental facility. This complete neon scene (multiple signs & gable striping) was restored in two phases after being dark for decades. The first phase in 2009 included a new roof and other building improvements as well. Located near Villa Ridge, MO, a couple miles west of I-44 exit 251, on the north/west outer road (now state highway AT). (Cost of all neon restoration only, for both phases – $21,150)
Munger Moss Motel (2010) – This Lebanon, MO motel was built by Pete & Jessie Hudson in 1945 – seven cottages at first – growing to a total of 71 rooms after several expansions in 1947-61. Purchased in 1971 by Robert & Ramona Lehman, who continue to operate this treasure to this day. The huge 6-color neon sign has been a classic beacon for Mother Road travelers since 1955, when Pete copied the design from his friend Hillary Brightwell at the Rest Haven in Springfield, MO. (Cost of neon sign restoration only – $19,300)
Luna Café (2011) – Just four miles from the east end of the Chain of Rocks Bridge in Mitchell, IL, this legendary Route 66 icon with a long, colorful history is part of the St. Louis metro area, and as such, was a logical candidate for the first jointly sponsored NPS grant application by two state associations – Missouri & Illinois. Built by Irma Rafaelle & her husband in the late 1920’s, she operated it for almost 50 years until 1974. After a series of ownership changes, Larry Wofford has now owned it since 1998. The 7-color neon sign on the road side and the crescent moon neon sign on the tall false front were both restored in 2011, after being dark for decades. (Cost of all neon restoration only – $22,350)
Crestwood Bowl (2012)– It was built in 1957 by three St. Louis area bowling stars, who sold it to bowling champion Ray Bluth in 1973. He and his son Mike have proudly operated and maintained this property for over 40 years now. The neon sign went dark in 2009, and was then restored in 2012 by the NHPC. It is one of only four signs in St. Louis County designated as a “County Landmark.” Located at 9822 Watson Road in Crestwood, MO. (Cost of neon sign restoration only – $14,800)
“Vic Suhling / Gas for Less” (2013) – Now the “calling card” in front of the new Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center, the sign was erected in 1957 for Vic Suhling’s new gas station there, directly across the street from the Ariston Café. The business and sign shut down in 1973 when I-55 opened around Litchfield, IL. The station was razed in 1990, but the sign stood there for 40 years as a neglected, silent sentinel until it was restored in 2013 (again jointly with the Route 66 Association of Illinois.) (Cost of neon only – $16,300)
Skylark Motel (VFW Post 2482) (2014) – The motel opened in 1952 and operated until the late 1970’s – and then was later acquired by the St. Clair VFW in 1993. This complete neon scene includes as its highlight the spectacular neon-lit Art Deco tower, a unique sight not found anywhere else on the Mother Road. A total rehab of the tower itself and replacement of all the glass blocks were also a part of the project. The VFW Post is located 1.5 miles west of I-44 exit 239, on the north side outer road. (Cost of all neon restoration only – $16,300)
“Modern Cabins” (Graystone Heights) (2014) – Margaret & Ben Brewer opened this small 9-unit tourist court in 1935, made of native Missouri “giraffe stone.” The business thrived until 1960 when I-44 opened around Springfield, MO. Russell & Betty Schweke purchased the property shortly thereafter for their “R&S Floral” business. Their son John & his wife Alexa now operate that same 50-year old business, and are proud of its Route 66 heritage, as demonstrated by the 2014 restoration of the original neon sign from its days as a tourist court. Three of the four original cabin buildings still remain, and can be found just 5 miles west of I-44 exit 72, at 9323 MO Highway 266. (privately funded, no National Park Service grant)
Boots Court (2015) – Arthur Boots built the original 8-room motel in 1939 at the “Crossroads of America” (then US 66 & 71 in Carthage – Garrison & Central Avenues). After 5 more rooms were added in 1946, the motel was lovingly cared for by Reuben & Rachel Asplin for 44 years (1948-1991), after which it declined – closing as a motel in 2001, and on the brink of destruction in 2011 when it was rescued by Debye Harvey & her sister Priscilla Bledshaw.
Both the motel and neon sign were restored to their 1950’s heyday in 2012-13; and the remaining architectural green neon shown here enjoyed a grand relighting on April 9, 2016. (Cost of architectural neon only – $15,000)
Chicken Basket (2016)– Originating around 1930 in a next door service station, the present building was built in 1946 by founder Irv Kolarik – then in Hinsdale, IL but now a part of the Willowbrook community. It was purchased by restauranteur Dell Rhea in 1963, who operated it with his wife Grace until their son Patrick took over the business in 1986. The 70-year old, recently restored, neon sign has remained a colorful calling card for the Chicken Basket ever since 1946, during which time the restaurant has received numerous accolades and awards. (Cost of neon sign restoration only — $28,000)
Wilder’s Restaurant (2017) – located at 1216 S. Main St. in Joplin, Wilder’s is actually 5 blocks off the Route 66 intersection at 7th & Main. Nevertheless, its classy neon sign that hangs over the front door, its recently restored rooftop neon sign shown here (that lights up the night sky in downtown Joplin) and its long restaurant history back to 1928, all make it an extended Route 66 business that has been operated since 1996 by Mike & Marsha Pawlus. (Cost of rooftop neon restoration only — $38,000)
Contact Information for “Team Neon”
Jim Thole, NHPC Chairman / Team Leader, can be reached
at 636-227-2258 e-mail: 66thole@SBCglobal.net
David Hutson, Neon Restoration Consultant, can be reached
at 636-940-7070 e-mail: NeonTime@SBCglobal.net