1154 -1176 West Broadway



Mari Fujita & Oliver Neumann

In 1958, the Bowmac car dealership on West Broadway erected a 29-meter-high orange sign, replete with red neon, over 1,200 incandescent light bulbs, and a kinetic Las Vegas-style marquee base. The decision was a response to heavy competition on what was then Vancouver’s Auto Row. Car dealerships battled for attention with signs expressing capitalist prowess through size and complexity. The Bowmac sign was, at its time, the largest freestanding sign in North America. It could be seen 18 miles away, and was a culmination for Vancouver’s thriving neon light industry, a brilliant display of technology, artisanship and commercial spirit.

“Vancouver is a city of perpetual fete... Vancouver has no rival and her signs will continue to illuminate her business section with a brilliance and variety that is a source of pride to her residents and a surprise to her guests.” (Vancouver Sun, 1934.)

Much has happened since Vancouver’s neon heyday. While the majority of the neon signs have been taken down, the Bowmac sign has transitioned from disrepair, to disuse, to what, in 1997, the City of Vancouver Heritage Commission called “adaptive re-use” (City of Vancouver Heritage Revitalization Agreement-Bowmac Sign, May 21, 1997). In its present form, the original sign has a significantly reduced level of illumination and is partially shrouded by a 3/4” metal screen bearing the Toys “R” Us logo.

The Bowmac sign is just one instance in a larger history of neon signage in Vancouver. Bids for attention and street presence similar to the one on Auto Row took place in other parts of the city making Vancouver the neon sign capital of Canada. The city was so aglow with neon that airplane pilots found Vancouver an easy place to land aircraft, and it was possibly the only place in the world that could boast a 1-18 ratio of neon signs to residents (Atkin, John, “Vancouver Neon!,” in The Greater Vancouver Book, 1997). From the late 1920s through the 1960s, the extensive display of sophisticated neon in Vancouver was the source of its urban identity. Neon signs helped construct artificially illuminated urban areas, demarcating a clear boundary between the civic and the natural, the civilized in the uncivilized.

“Bright, colorful neon contributed to the perceived urbanity of the city. Even Vancouver, a relatively quiet West Coast town aspired to metropolitan attributes. Attractive, well-lit, lively streets conveyed the message that Vancouver possessed an essential ingredient of urbanity.” (Joan Seidl, Vancouver Museum, 1997.)

But by the 1960s, the neon carnival was described in the local press as a neon nightmare, a billboard jungle, signaling a major shift in the general perception of the space of the city. The signs were seen to override the architecture and clutter the streets. Calls were made for a stricter Sign By-law, “one that clears away the present mess of barn-sized idiot-boards and strictly controls all new erections…Why should we suffer huge, obnoxious, view-blocking signs? (Tom Ardies, The Vancouver Sun, 1966.) Through the ‘60s, neon signage and the urban commercial culture it represented were increasingly at odds with the new desire to integrate the city with its natural setting. Fueled largely by a campaign initiated by the Vancouver Community Arts Council and a new wave of foreign politicians and planners in the city, the eradication of neon signage in the city was a manifestation of new values. The belief that Vancouver should construct its identity not through inward-looking vibrant street signage but by establishing connections to the natural setting and horizon beyond constitutes a fundamental shift in the conception of the territory of the city.

“The statements that Vancouver is beautiful and Vancouver is ugly do not really contradict each other at all. The setting is lovely with a character of its own which can give Vancouver a permanent personality- and which can give its citizens a personality, too. But within that setting some of the works of man can be quite hideous. They can be...and they are.” (Warnett Kennedy, City Alderman, 1959.)

The change in attitude was followed by alterations to the city’s Sign By-law in 1967 and 1974. These regulations brought about the evaporation of the entire neon sign industry and, by extension, the glowing urban core. More recently, measures such as the City of Vancouver’s View Protection Guidelines [1989], which define and protect views through the city to nature beyond, and the Vancouver Skyline Study [initiated 1996], which regulates the shape of the Downtown Skyline within the context of the nature beyond, have become accepted practice. A visit to any new condominium’s display center illustrates that view is also capital: new developments are described in terms of their uniqueness within the city’s skyline, and are valued according to the quality of their views out to the mountains and ocean.

“Along with construction techniques, there’s always the construction of technique, that collection of spatial and temporal mutations that is constantly reorganizing both the world of everyday experience and the esthetic representations of contemporary life.” (Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension, 1991.)

In both the ‘50s and today the celebration of the visual wonder, the abundant scenery, and the spectacular spectacle of Vancouver have been the defining feature of the urban experience and the subject of its postcards. While the versions of visual wonder then and now are diametrically opposed, both successfully define territory through a consumptive gaze. Theories of modern vision and subjectivity describe a development from a static, singular subject perceiving his/her world in perspectival space, to a disembodied subject that must actively negotiate a fragmented and dynamic space governed by multiple scales of time, and various forms of media.

It is interesting to observe, then, that in Vancouver a dynamic urban environment with street-walls of animated neon signs has been replaced by clear and clean views to a static background. This shift in the object of the gaze radically alters our conception of the territory of the city itself. The days of Vancouver street photographer Foncie Pulice rolling his “Electric Photos” camera through the downtown core with the intent of capturing street life have given way to long-shot postcards capturing composed images that promote a sensible balance of nature and city.

Source: Wikipedia, retrieved 2010

The BowMac sign, known as "Toys "R" BowMac" and "Toymac", is a neon sign in Vancouver, British Columbia with a metal screen depicting the Toys "R" Us logo covering a significant portion of the original sign. It stands at 1154-1176 West Broadway, a Toys "R" Us store. It was designated by the City of Vancouver as a landmark worthy of preservation and revitalization in 1997. The sign is a landmark of Vancouver, but also a topic of contention as unsightly as well as exceptionally large.

Early History
The Bowell McLean (BowMac) car dealership on West Broadway in Vancouver erected the sign above the business in 1958. The orange sign was covered with hundreds of bulbs and neon lights. It was the largest structure in Vancouver other than the BC Electric Building downtown and recognized as North America's largest freestanding sign. The billboard was visible from 18 miles due. [1]
However, as the neon craze of 1950s Vancouver began to disappear in the 1960s, many signs were outlawed by stricter bylaws. The BowMac sign stood into the 1990s, when desires to demolish it surfaced. The city's planning and heritage departments opposed the idea, and passed legislation in 1997 to preserve it.

In the 1950s, Vancouver was the North American neon capital for its large number of signs, the artisanship involved, and the technology on display. Vancouver was recognisable from the air by the glow. The BowMac was the largest, most recognizable, and most central sign. It has a font, design, and shape distinct to the era. These considerations led to designation as a landmark worthy of heritage conservation in May 1997.

The arguments against are that it is ugly and clashes with the multicoloured logo of Toys "R" Us; that it looks ridiculous; that it stands out in the conservative landscape of West Broadway.
Another issue is that the Toys "R" Us sign is exempt from but way beyond the bylaws. The BowMac sign itself is 215% too tall and 1823% larger than the allowed area; the Toys "R" Us billboard covers roughly three quarters of this space.
A third criticism is that the addition of the Toys "R" Us sign to the original BowMac sign compromises its heritage value.
Suggestions that the sign was an earthquake hazard and that it was going to make too much noise and light pollution were addressed; the site was deemed to be earthquake-proof, and the power was restricted between 10pm and 4am.[2]


1. Fujita, Mari & Neumman, Oliver regarding the BowMac sign's history. http://www.arcadejournal.com/Public/IssueArticle.aspx?Volume=23&Issue=4&Article=122

2. Administrative report published May 21, 1997 regarding the sign's heritage designation. http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/970529/pe4.htm