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The only sign in Vancouver with heritage designation. Dunn's Tailors persuaded city planners to allow their sign to be relocated from Hastings Street when the store moved to 480 Granville and Pender in 1995, although the sign was "non-conforming'' (meaning it could not be erected under today's bylaws).

Old neon sign finds a new life
Dunn's Tailors landmark to glow at store's new location on Granville

.  The Vancouver Sun, Oct 28, 1995 .

When Dunn's Tailors decided to move from its longtime store at 390 West Hastings to a location at 480 Granville, there was one piece of the old building that owner Bob Smith dared not leave behind: Dunn's trademark neon sign.

"I'll tell you, as soon as I announced we were going to move, I had a steady stream of people coming in: 'You're taking that sign. You've got to take that sign,' '' says Smith. "I had phone call after phone call after phone call. I've had letters from strangers saying 'You must take that sign.'

"It was bad before, whenever we went to paint it or anything. As soon as they put a ladder up, people started coming out of the woodwork. 'You're not taking that down!' ''

But moving the 6.7-metre-wide sign was no simple matter. Its ruby-red neon glow may have been a staple of the downtown landscape since the sign was erected in 1946, but in 1995, it contravened several elements of Vancouver's sign bylaw.

Problem number one: It protrudes onto the street. Problem number two: The neon letters comprise more than 40 per cent of the face of the sign. Problem number three: The letters sit atop a flat canopy, which is designated as a roof under the sign bylaw -- and you can't have roof-top signs in Vancouver.

As long as the sign stayed at the old location, it was fine. But when Smith tried to move it, he ran afoul of the bylaw.

"It caused me a lot of aggravation,'' says Smith. "It was a long process. We had to go to the board of variance, get development permits, all these various things, until we got approved.''

It took about four months to get civic approval to move the sign. It is now undergoing a $40,000 rebuild at the

Sign-o-lite plant in Richmond, and is scheduled to be erected at Dunn's new Granville street location Nov. 6.

Heritage activists and proponents of neon are elated that the Dunn's sign has been saved. But they say the problems Smith encountered illustrate the shortcomings of the sign bylaw, which severely limits the style of new neon signs.

Currently, the bylaw prohibits or severely restricts things like flashing lights (such as the cascading waterfall on the Niagara Hotel sign on West Pender) and signs above the third storey (such as the Orpheum sign).

Cameron Hill of Sign-o-lite thinks this is ridiculous.

"What's the harm in it?'' asks Hill. "What's wrong with a flashing neon sign? You look down a street and see a flashing neon sign, it looks like a city.''

Ironically, Vancouver once had the most neon per capita in North America. There was so much neon on Granville, it was nicknamed "the Great White Way.''

"Vancouver at one time had 18,000 neon signs,'' says Allan Goldman, who is working on a documentary film about Vancouver's neon's age, Glowing in the Dark.

"It had one neon sign for every 19 people in the 1950s. It was a neon mecca.''

But not for some Vancouverites, who saw all the neon as a form of visual blight.

John Atkin of Heritage Vancouver explains that in the late 1960s, there was a move to showcase the city's natural attractions, and signage -- like neon -- came under attack.

Led by the head of the community arts council, the anti-sign crusaders ``got their knickers in a real tight twist about `visual blight,' '' he said.

"They took aim at all the billboards at the ends of the bridges. Then they decided billboards in general, then they thought neon was ugly. They wanted to beautify the city.

"One alderman blamed neon for both the litter and prostitution problem in Vancouver. That was the other attack on neon -- it was this sleazy light source.''

Eventually, the anti-blight crusade led to a new sign bylaw. While it didn't specifically target neon, Goldman says it effectively ``put the kibosh'' on Vancouver's neon business.

"It ended the days of the neon spectacular -- the spectacular animated moving signs that had once been in the city were no longer put up.

"And they were no longer a form of advertising that advertisers knew they could use.''



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