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Shawn Vestal: Project aims to restore Spokane’s old neon signs

Tobby Hatley wants to bring some color back to the Spokane night.

Hatley, a former TV newsman, is leading a project to identify and refurbish some of the grand neon signs that have fallen into disrepair or disuse around town. His effort, called Light ’Em Up!, is in its infancy, focusing on fundraising and identifying the first signs for work. And it’s far from certain how the re-glorified pieces might be displayed – but he’s optimistic about the potential to revive an artistic piece of the region’s history.

“I just think neon is cool, and it’s a disappearing art form,” Hatley said. “This is about character. It just shows character, and Spokane’s got a lot of character.”

It’s too soon to say for sure which signs might be included, but the early candidates include the grand vertical sign for the Otis Hotel and the large Ridpath sign on the top of the former hotel – to say nothing of what they might discover in various “boneyards.” Hatley hopes to have raised enough money to have the first project going early next year.

“It could happen sooner if someone wanted to drop a load of cash on us,” he said.

The project’s “technical adviser” is Ken Yuhasz, a longtime local neon artist. His work includes the Milford’s sign, which he created in 1995, and the Evergreen Parking Garage sign, which he refurbished.

“We’re modeling this on what we’ve seen elsewhere, Las Vegas being the biggest example,” Yuhasz said.

In Vegas, there is a neon museum packed with restored signs. Similar projects of various sizes have been undertaken along Route 66, and in Shelton and Ritzville, to name just a few. Sometimes signs are replaced in their original positions, sometimes they’re displayed somewhere new, and sometimes they’re put together in a unified display, as in Las Vegas. So far, the question of how they might be displayed here remains open.

“It’s a case-by-case basis,” Hatley said.

Neon signs were a dominant feature of American nightscapes in the middle of the 20th century. The bright tubes of electrified, rarefied gases were used to adorn signs of all shapes and kinds – often particular and individualized forms of expression that are much more vivid and lively and interesting than the plainer, more homogenized signs that have largely taken their place.

“The way they were shaped and what they said was really a part of a region’s culture,” Hatley said.

Imagine that Otis sign cleaned up and relit. While the former hotel is now locked in a foreclosure process, Hatley and Yuhasz clearly have an interest in the sign, and they say prospective owners are interested as well. As the renovations of the Ridpath into an apartment building moves forward, they’re looking at the large sign atop the former hotel as another possibility. Those letters were once outlined in neon.

The city’s new arts nonprofit, Spokane Arts, is lending its nonprofit status to Light ’Em Up! and acting as the group’s fiscal agent for grants and financial purposes. Hatley’s now working on raising money and writing grant proposals. He hopes that within a few years, the group will have a budget in the range of $100,000.

Meanwhile, he and Yuhasz are cruising town, looking for candidates. There are some nice old signs out on Sunset Highway and some out on East Sprague, they said. They’ve been looking at an old bowling alley sign in Airway Heights. Hatley has begun inquiring about a former Reddy Kilowatt sign that used to be displayed in Moscow. Everything is preliminary and subject to change, but everything is in place for a neon revival in Spokane.

“We’ve never done this before,” Hatley said. “It’s really throwing a dart at a dart board.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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