Royal crusade

Lovers of '50s-era design see the gold in displaced neon sign
by: L.E. BASKOW, Members of the Mid-Century Modern League spent part of their St. Patrick’s Day watching the Crown Motel’s neon sign come down. It will go into storage for now, but members hope it will find a new home close to its old one.

The sparkling crown beckoned weary motorists, suggesting lodging fit for a king.

The neon sign had hung above the Crown Motel since the property opened on North Interstate Avenue in 1959.

And though the motel has fallen - to be replaced by rental housing and retail space - the sign may live to light another night.

In January the fate of the sign came to the attention of the Mid-Century Modern League, or MCMLeague, a nonprofit organization with a mission to raise awareness of midcentury architecture and design in the city.

'It was a perfect opportunity to take another look at something which might be seen by many as an eyesore, offering little historical value to the community,' says Bo Sullivan, a corporate member of MCMLeague representing Rejuvenation, the house parts and lighting company.

'For us it was a great chance to say, 'Here's another perspective. There's a lot we really love about this period, and here's another example of the exuberant optimism of the time that is worth holding onto.' '

The sign is a piece of the identity of the neighborhood, Sullivan says, part of the fabric that makes Interstate Avenue unique.

'These types of signs and the motels that they stood in front of represent the whole birth and expansion of the automobile culture that came after the war,' he says. 'The freedom to move around; traveling with the family to other parts of the country; the growth of the interstate system. There was a critical mass around the car and the changes it made to our lifestyle that reached a watershed in this period.

'When we lose the evidence of the story, we lose the story. When we hold onto the pieces, we hold onto the reminders for generations to come.'

Midcentury makes comeback

Alyssa Starelli is vice president, chairwoman and founding member of MCMLeague. The 33-year-old real estate agent specializes in ranch houses and midcentury homes. She grew up in a series of such houses, including one with a kidney-shaped pool and rocks on the flat roof.

Familiarity breeds contempt, however, and for years she hated everything '50s.

But a number of years ago, she became fascinated with America's postwar culture, which ignited an appreciation for its objects, autos and architecture. As a real estate agent, she also realized the great value represented in the housing stock of the era.

Last year she visited Las Vegas and returned excited about what the Atomic Age Alliance was doing in that city. She began e-mailing clients, friends and people interested in midcentury architecture and design: 'This is going to be a club to celebrate midcentury lifestyle and hopefully preserve some things along the way.'

The group of about 90 members meets once a month at the Alibi Restaurant and Lounge. Members run the gamut from atomic age kitsch enthusiasts to corporate members like Sullivan at Rejuvenation, which is launching a new midcentury line called Satellite.

'We want to be a political group, but we also want to have fun,' Starelli says. 'We realize we all have jobs - that we don't need a second career. We're all interested in preserving or glorifying this type of architecture, really, and then sharing it with community.'

Though Starelli lauds the redevelopment plans for North Interstate, she quickly adds: 'That doesn't mean it has to be a harbinger for knocking down every motel on that street, knocking down every sign. Once you take the character out of Interstate, what do you have? You've got a road just like any other road. It could have been a brand-new road.

'When you go down that street at night, you've got the Palms, the Alibi and the Western - all these gorgeous signs lit up at night. You'll notice the motels are looking a lot nicer in the last year because of certain projects the city has put through. But we could make it a vibrant community where people do actually go to Interstate just to see the neon.'

'Why rip it out?'

While the high-profile campaign to save the Crown Motel sign has galvanized people, MCMLeague also is interested in preserving Portland's postwar housing stock.

'If it's classic,' Starelli says, 'it's classic.'

She cringes at 'flippers' who replace original, high-end, hardwood cabinetry with cheap cabinets from big-box stores in a move to quickly freshen and sell a home.

'Sometimes (these houses) have very streamlined, beautiful built-ins and cabinetry that don't deserve to be painted, high-end woods that you can't buy anymore,' she says. 'Why rip it out when you can restore it? It all ends up in our junkyards and our landfills. Ripping stuff out is not green.'

The products one chooses to 'update' a home not only potentially rob a house of its soul but soon will be dated themselves.

'That's what's happening with granite right now,' Starelli says, describing her tours of homes with clients. 'Granite was all the rage, so people are using these granite tiles. And now buyers walk into houses and go, 'Oh. Granite.' They're tired of it. People like concrete, but now the concrete is going out of style, too.'

Sign goes into limbo

The Crown Motel sign was removed March 17 and the motel torn down last week. Ramsay Signs (which restored the Hollywood Theatre sign) will store the sign for 12 months, giving the MCMLeague time to find a new site and raise funds to restore it, estimated to cost between $35,000 and $45,000.

If, at the end of the year, there's been no progress in preserving and finding a home for the sign, it will be parted out. While there has been interest from other neighborhoods in the city, MCMLeague hopes to keep it on Interstate.

The ideal option, Sullivan says, would be to have the sign preserved as is and placed on publicly owned property along Interstate Avenue, where it can be a memory of what was.

'It's a tough task,' he concedes. 'It's a little odd to have an old motel sign out of context. The setting has to be right so that it doesn't seem weird and ridiculous. This option would have the highest value in terms of fundraising. Everyone can participate equally.

'At the other end of the spectrum,' he says, 'a private property owner steps up and the sign is repurposed in such a way that it preserves the form but promotes the new business. It would save the character of the sign and the neighborhood - the sparkle and flash as you drive down Interstate.

'The Made in Oregon sign has had several iterations. Not a lot of it is original to what it was conceived. A sign can have this life where it still has its story and energy, but the story evolves.'

A third possibility would be that the sign is made into, for example, an entry sign to the neighborhood.

Fundraising for each of the scenarios is quite different.

'For example,' Sullivan says, 'our interest at Rejuvenation is a lot less if the sign is repurposed for an adult video store.'

In the end, he says, awareness has been raised, which is the group's primary goal.

'A lot of people are much more aware of the sign itself and the bigger issues of how restoration impacts Interstate,' he says. 'We've bought some time to find a creative solution.'

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