Museum Monday: Regent Tailors neon sign c. 1946-1975

Regent tailors neon signThis Museum Monday we’re basking in the glow of this iconic Regent Tailors sign (circa 1946 to 1975). Today, the sign hangs in the MOV's Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver exhibition, but it was originally located at 324 West Hastings, it hung across from another famous neon display (at “the Sally Shop”). The Regent Tailors Sign was installed in 1946 — the early beginning of the 1950s neon boom in Vancouver.

You’ll find several smaller treasures in our OpenMOV Collection related to Regent Tailors. These include technical drawings, a business card circa 1950-70, and a couple of charming items collected by Ivan Sayers (of “Art Deco Chic” fame).

One such item is a “Tailors box” (circa 1945-1959). It’s decorated with a quaint picture of a ‘tailor at work’ alongside a snappy blue slogan, “Regent Tailors Ltd. Where Smart Styles Originate”. The strangest find of all? A branded pocket knife (circa 1925-45). Emblazoned with “Regent Tailors Vancouver BC” on its plastic handle, this promotional pocket knife was probably given away with a newly tailored suit. What an odd marketing choice! “Like your suit? We’ll here’s a trusty knife for you…”

The sign itself, was designed and manufactured by the Neon Products Company of Vancouver (located at 1885 Clark Drive). Other custom creations to their credit include the whimsical Artistocrat Restaurant sign and that monolithic beacon for the BOW MAC car dealership. Established in 1928, the Neon Products Company was the earliest and most prolific manufacturer of neon signs in Western Canada.  It is now the largest company of its kind in the world, putting Vancouver squarely on the ‘neon map’ despite local city bi-laws which today strictly limit installations here at home. Ralf Kelman, an artist and self described ‘lighting activist’, collected signs from the Neon Products scrap yard. In 1977 he sold part of his collection to the Museum of Vancouver. As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” (or perhaps as museums would say: one man’s “I just don’t possibly have any place to store this old thing anymore” become museological points of interest).

The MOV’s neon collection is still buzzing in the electric glow of our Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver exhibition (which runs through to August 12). The latest news? The Green Couch Sessions and rising indie songbird Adaline came to MOV for a live video shoot in the Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver Exhibition. The humming sound created by the signs was a perfect fit for her song “The Noise”.


This video features Adaline on an analogue keyboard/drum machine with Adrian Glynn on acoustic guitar. I especially love this ‘paired down’ production which shows off Adaline’s sweet vocal tone and blends seamlessly into the neon hum. Adaline’s black and silver sequined outfit picks up on the neon scene –shimmering like puddles on a cool midnight street.

Not only did we rock out in the Neon room but we got to explore the vintage clothing exhibit happening in the gallery next door. It was one of the best Monday mornings the Green Couch has ever had…” - Green Couch Sessions

MOVments: CFL victory, political punting & bright lights

MOVments: current events in Vancouver by the Museum of Vancouver

Ah, the sweet smell of victory.

The BC Lions charged their way to a Grey Cup win on Sunday – and quel surprise – the only brawl to break out involved former CFL legends and a ‘peace offering’ of flowers at an alumni luncheon. Looks like the MOV won’t be inheriting any more “vanlover” graffiti walls for the time being.

What goes up must come down, and in this case a celebration in sports, means a sad lament for the environment as the Federal Government announces its intention of pulling out of the Kyoto Accord . Along with strong nationalism and the ‘harperization’ of government communications, this latest move has many Canadians and a few MOVers considering the terms “Conversatism” and “Orwellian”  more closely. (Maybe now is a good time to mention that CBC Vancouver is holding their open house this Friday, Dec 2nd.)

Meanwhile, the tents may have gone down for Occupy Vancouver, but the group is looking at new phases for the movement, which has brought more discourse on class and capitalism to the forefront than ever before. In London, the occupy groups have begun occupying abandoned banks and buildings - Amanda in marketing wonders what we'll see from the Vancouver group.

Neon Lover? Perhaps our current exhibit has got you thinking about Granville’s “Great White Way” and considering historical neon signs. As Hanna pointed out, the Yale Hotel is closing for renovations  after 123 years, but promises to maintain it’s brick walls and neon signage.

Speaking of renovations, be sure to have your voice heard on the state of Vancouver’s viaducts.

And lastly, for those of you interested in the relationship between public media and art, Kate recommends “Urban Screens and City Building”, a free public talk with Mirjam Struppek at SFU Surrey.  Many collaborations have been made between museums and urban screen projects asking the question, “What is their potential for creating personal or shared experiences?”


Neon. OpenFile is spending a month researching the history of neon in Vancouver and asked many Vancouverites, including our curator Joan Seidl what their favourite neon signs in Vancouver are.

Graffiti. The city of Vancouver is reinstating it's anti-graffiti program after a resurgence in tagging around the city. Though the increase in graffiti may not be directly related to the program at all.

Disappearing phones. Merchants in the DTES say payphones are more hassle than they're worth.

Rising seas. BTAworks has released a toolkit that visualizes the effects of climate change on the coastline in Vancouver. One interesting thing is that a rise of even a couple metres in sea level would go a long way toward restoring the original coastline of False Creek.

Book exchange. Members of the Grandview-Woodlands Block Watch are creating community with a book exchange box and community chalk board.

Liveable Laneways is working to transform back alleys into vibrant public spaces with planters, events and open air markets.

Cycling. The Tyee continues it's weekly series about bike-centric urban planning.The Dependent remembers Vancouver's first dedicated bicycle paths, constructed in 1886.

Changing City is a blog that tracks new developments in Vancouver.

Before it was home to Canuck Place Hospice the Glen Brae mansion was the home of the Kanadian Klu Klux Klan.

Image: pixeljones, via flickr.

Seattle Special: A farmer’s market mixes with art, a neighbourhood is reinvented, and neon survives


I recently stole away to Seattle for a brief field trip. Am always amazed by how two cities of similar vintage, size, and geography could have so much in common yet feel so very different; American and Canadian versions of each other.

One of the biggest news stories unfolding there currently is the redevelopment of South Lake Union. How the central neighbourhood has avoided redevelopment until now is uncertain, positioned as it is between downtown, Capitol Hill, and connected to the all-important I-5. Development has been spurred by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment firm Vulcan Inc., and the addition of a streetcar line to the area. (Side note: the line has been so well received that another line has just been approved. Click here for details.)

It’s tempting to compare South Lake Union’s revival to, say, Yaletown’s or Southeast False Creek’s, but the notable difference is jobs. Seattle is brilliant at incorporating job centres with residential buildings. South Lake Union is now home to a just-opened Amazon campus. When it’s combined with offices for The Gates Foundation, Path, and Biomed, the neigbhourhood will see 15,000 new workers added over the next five years. No wonder some of the city’s best restaurants have recently moved in (Mistral Kitchen) or are planning to move (Flying Fish).

Seattle didn’t have the concentration of neon signs that Vancouver once did, but they didn’t experience what MOV’s Joan Seidl dubs “the visual purity crusade” that saw so many of them removed either. Drive up Denny Way and take Aurora Boulevard north. There, mixed in with the car dealerships and motor hotels (think Kingsway), so many mid-century signs still exist—many still in great condition. Our favourite one along that stretch is the Pepsi sign pictured above. For other signs located elsewhere in the city, refer to the driving guide assembled by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here. They call the tour a “windshield museum.” Love that idea.

p.s. If you head down this summer, be sure to visit the new farmer’s market set to open in July at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park—another urban planning feat. Details here.

Image credit: Mr. Phelps


MOVments from the week


A weekly round up of the news and cultural happenings we followed this week—and what’s coming up at MOV.

Empire Stadium rising! This isn’t a news event from the week so much as an expression of enthusiasm for the new-old Empire Stadium that’s very quickly taking shape in Hastings Park. So excited about its return! If you haven’t seen the goings on down there, check it out this weekend. (Are we forgetting the misery of watching football in cold November rain? Perhaps.) Blogger Miss 604 blog posted a nice round up of archive images of the original stadium in a December post linked here. The image at left is of the final BC Lions game played there in 1982.

The sea horse comes down: Hastings Street’s iconic Only Sea Foods (sic) sign came down this week. The sign has been dark since the storied restaurant closed last year (read our story on the closure here). Many of you have contacted us asking if we’re now in possession of the sign. Nope! The Portland Hotel Society is storing it in hopes of reinstalling it and reopening the diner somewhere, somehow. John Mackie has a thorough account in today’s Vancouver Sun; local historian John Atkin has a slideshow of the sign coming down on Flickr.

Fewer homeless on the streets, more in shelters. The good news: according to new figures released today, the city’s homeless residents are using emergency shelters. The bad: the shelters close next month. The worse: the number of people without permanent homes continues to grow, rising six per cent per year over the past two years. (CBC)

Wish we could be there: We often suffer a twinge of public program-envy when reading about the goings on at our favourite New York museums. Case in point: tonight, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia speaks at the New Museum. A perfect guest to speak on the use of technology in cataloguing history, and the rise of mass curating! (New Museum)

And lastly… tomorrow night we host DIY@MOV2. I’ve written much about the social-crafting soiree on the blog and there are additional details on our Audience Engagement Calendar here. If you come, please send us feedback either by posting a comment here or via our Twitter account. Oh, and on Saturday morning we’re hosting an awesome felt workshop for kids and their parents; details here. Do hope to see you! Happy weekend.

Image credit: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun files

Acquired: Blue Eagle Cafe neon sign


From its longtime perch over East Hastings Street to its new home in the Museum’s permanent collection, the Blue Eagle Cafe sign tells a fascinating story about both the history of neon in Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside’s long and steady decline.

The Blue Eagle Cafe opened at 130 E. Hastings St. in 1944. It was a simple neighbourhood spot, serving Canadian and Chinese fare in a thriving stretch of downtown. The iconic neon sign would have been added a few years after the opening, as the ongoing Second World War brought restrictions to the availability and use of sheet metal used in neon-sign production.

By the 1950s, the Downtown Eastside was becoming the epicentre of the city’s drug trade and the Blue Eagle would earn a reputation as a place to score heroin. In 1999, the cafe lost its business license as a part of a City Hall crackdown on “problem premises”—and foreshadowing what would happen at the nearby Only Sea Foods (sic) restaurant last year (read our blog post on that unfortunate story here). The cafe became a convenience store; a cheap sign for “R&R Convenience” was erected beneath the cerulean-blue neon.

The old sign remained, awaiting a move into the Pantages Theatre next door. Property owner Marc Williams had put forward a plan to restore the 1908 vaudeville theatre and install the sign in the lobby. When those plans fell through in December, Williams generously offered to donate the sign to the Museum, where it recently arrived. It is now in storage awaiting restoration work that will be done in time for a new neon gallery that will open in the fall of 2011.

The design of the Blue Eagle sign is significant, says Joan Seidl, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “It embodies the history of neon and the challenges to it with neon on the bottom and a plastic sign on top.” She believes the back-lit plastic upper section was added in the 1970s. The sign joins another important piece of Blue Eagle Cafe history. In 2001, the Museum acquired a painted-glass sign that once hung in the front window to obscure sight lines into the long-troubled spot. With this latest acquisition, we’ll keep it from becoming just a memory.

Image credit: John Allison


Rethinking the billboard

Is it possible Vancouver has taken the wrong approach to billboards all this time?

Since the 1970s, when City Hall restricted the use and location of billboards—notably only a few years after banning new neon signs—Vancouver has waged war on outdoor advertising, seeing it as an affront to public space. A series of amendments passed between 1996 and 2009, brought further restrictions. According to a 2009 City Hall report, “between 2003 and 2008, about 300 billboards were removed largely due to site redevelopment. In the same period, about 35 billboards were added, generally in industrial areas.”

Remember the billboard atop the Lee Building at Main and Broadway? It was removed after a protracted legal battle between the building’s owner and the City that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. (More on the story on; a picture of the now-billboard-free building appears above.)

Recently, the billboard issue resurfaced when the Squamish Nation erected a digital billboard on band land at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge (details here). The sign was a long time coming; planned for years and protested by residents for just as many. Originally, the plan called for 18 billboards to be put up on various reserves and Squamish land around Vancouver, the North Shore, and Squamish. Ultimately, they decided on just six signs in four locations. The dimensions of the signs were scaled back, too.

Other cities take a far harder line on outdoor advertising than we do: West Vancouver prohibits ads on bus shelters; in 2007, São Paolo enacted a Clean City Law, effectively banning all billboards, making pamphleteering in public spaces illegal, and putting new restrictions on the size of storefront signage. According to this story in Adbusters magazine, 70% of São Paolo residents approve of the new measures.

What’s most interesting to us in all this is how extreme people’s reactions are to billboards: loved (”they’re a part of living in a big city”) or loathed (”like driving through a giant Yellow Pages advertising section”). Beloved public squares in Europe are covered in advertising. And what would New York’s Times Square be without their massive, flickering screens? None of this is to say that we’re New York, or that we want to see the kind of concentration of billboards that lines ferry terminals or the island highway between Victoria and Nanaimo, but just how far will we go to create a message-free city? Is there a middle ground between bland and saturated we’ve yet to explore?

In the 1940s and ’50s, downtown Vancouver streets were visually arresting and lined with artful, occasionally garish, neon signs and billboard signs. (Fred Herzog photographed this billboard on Georgia Street in 1968.) Today, it seems we’re less a city to look at than one to look through. So-called “view corridors” direct eyes through glass towers to the water and mountains beyond.

There are some signs of life on the streets, however. The Vancouver Art Gallery is using its exterior walls more and more as exhibit space. Currently, the Georgia Street facade is covered by a hand-painted floral mural by artist Michael Lin. The Robson Square side of the building is running a loop of incredible films that are drawing crowds. The redesign of Granville Street is all about recapturing our lit-up past—albeit carefully—from the lamp standards to the proposed screening space on the Sears building. Would we be willing to trade some outdoor advertising space here to help fund such public events and new public art?

Here’s another idea we find inspiring: in Los Angeles, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture procured 30-day billboard donations and commissioned 21 artists to create new works and effectively “take over what is perhaps one of the most exclusively commercial sites of public architecture we’ve got.” Dwell magazine has an online slideshow of the various works; it’s well worth a look. We think it’s the kind of intelligent thinking that makes a city a vibrant, compelling place, and maybe, just maybe, justifies looking at advertising now and then.

Image credits from top to bottom:

Lee Building from City Caucus
Lucky/Georgia by Fred Herzog, via the Equinox Gallery

What makes a ‘Great Street’? (Return of the Great White Way, part two)

If the Granville Street Fred Herzog photographed in the 1950s represents the area’s heyday, how do we get back there? (See images and intro in the previous post here.) Quick answer: we can’t and shouldn’t. The Orpheum and Vogue theatres are still around, sure, but there’s now an intense concentration of bars and nights clubs alongside them. (There are now more liquor seats in this section of Granville than anywhere else in the city.) In addition, Granville is now a regional transit hub where three subway lines converge onto a car-free transit mall. Downtown Granville Street isn’t Main Street, or even South Granville Street; it serves less charming purposes. A better question is whether the new Granville—the workhorse, not the neon fantasy—can become a beloved, vibrant street again?

We think it just might. Here’s why.

The redesign was conceived by Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, two renowned San Francisco-based urban designers who’ve studied the world’s most significant streets down to the smallest of details. “It’s no big mystery,” writes Jacobs. “The best streets are comfortable to walk along with leisure and safety. They are streets for both pedestrians and drivers. They have definition, a sense of enclosure with their buildings; distinct ends and beginnings, usually with trees… The key point is that great streets are where pedestrians and drivers get along together.”

Macdonald and Jacobs have remade many a workhorse street. For example, in 2005, they completed a redesign of Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco (pictured left), replacing a section of the elevated Central Freeway that was rendered unsafe in a 1989 earthquake with a smart multi-way boulevard. It bears all of their trademarks: side lanes for parking, generous tree-lined sidewalks, and abundant landscaping and green space to counterbalance the pavement. I visited the site on a cloudless Saturday morning in November. The brunch crowd was out in force, crowding the sidewalks of several patios that overlook the boulevard. Hayes Green Park at the boulevard’s north end was just as lively; a public space, bordered by a major throughfare that somehow manages to complement the surroundings rather than disrupt them. According to an article by the Congress for the New Urbanism, since the boulevard was completed, real estate prices in the neighbourhood grew 30% faster than the city average. Retail rebounded, too. “Where it had been previously populated by liquor stores and mechanic shops, soon the area was teeming with trendy restaurants and high-end boutiques.”

The Granville Street redesign is still raw. The black asphalt and gleaming concrete need to settle into the surroundings, and the too-skinny street trees need time to mature (the City shouldn’t have skimped on them). But change is afoot. A light has been turned on. If nothing else, the new Granville will succeed because it doesn’t just manage crowds, it embraces them. Gone is the tired lighting, unwelcoming seating, and the ’70s-era S-shaped/meandering street section at the north end of the street; in, are double-wide sidewalks with inventive built-in benches (PWL Landscape Architects inspire again). Outdoor performance space has been considered, too, with the idea to project video on the side of the Sears department store.

All of it was long overdue.

Additional reading:

City of Vancouver, Granville Street Redesign

Project for Public Spaces “Placemaker Profile, Allan B. Jacobs”
“Building a Boulevard” by Elizabeth Macdonald in ACCESS magazine, published by the University of California Transportation Center.

Image credits:

Artist’s rendering of Granville Street Redesign, Helmcken to Nelson.
Artist’s rendering of Granville to Robson, potential for special events.
Octavia Boulevard, Rosemary Poole

Return of the Great White Way?

In 1959, Fred Herzog captured this image of the intersection of Granville and Robson Streets (a link to a larger image is found at the bottom of this post). Back then, the stretch of downtown Granville Street, between the blocks of Drake and Cordova, had earned the moniker “the Great White Way,” and it was a destination for live theatre and entertainment, lit up with neon signs. If you approached it up the hill to the south, the street radiated like an airport runway.

Only a few years later, that same stretch of Granville would change dramatically, beginning a slow and steady decline. In the 1960s, City Hall passed a bylaw banning new neon signs. In the 1970s, Granville Street was reconfigured into a transit mall, accessible only to public transit buses and pedestrians. Then Eaton’s opened their large, windowless white box of a store on the northwest corner of Granville and Robson (now Sears). The design wasn’t popular at the time, shutting out the street as it did, but people shopped there anyway, and in the new Pacific Centre Mall connected to it. Most retailers moved inside, too, their old stores replaced by tattoo parlours and sex shops. (Vancouver may have rallied against inner-city freeways, but it didn’t oppose the shopping mall; its impact on street life is just as profound.)

Herzog’s Granville Street may be long gone, but the energy of that time was a major influence on the latest redesign of the street, now very-nearly completed—and years in the making. If you’ve been to Granville recently, you’ll have noticed the changes; the street has undergone a major exfoliation. There a rawness to it: new double-wide concrete-and-basalt curbs supply parallel parking by day and become crowd-friendly sidewalks by night—newly planted street trees are overwhelmed by their width. Design elements and street furniture by PWL Partnership Landscape Architects and Pechet and Robb stand in gleaming contrast to some of the scrubbier buildings and businesses. Instead of typical streetlamps, vertical light tubes line the street, riffing off the shape and intensity of the old marquee signs (see image at left, also taken by Herzog).

The overall redesign concept was conceived by Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, leading thinkers on “Great Streets” (Jacobs’ 1993 book of the same name). The question is, will Granville become just that? The great street it once was, connecting the east and west sides of downtown? Our next post will explore that question, looking at Macdonald’s and Jacobs’ great streets philosophy.

Image credits, appearing from top to bottom:
Granville/Robson by Fred Herzog (1959), via 
Equinox Gallery.
Three Theatres by Fred Herzog (1957), via 
Equinox Gallery.

Noticed: The Shuttering of The Only Sea Foods

It was a quiet and sad ending for Vancouver’s oldest family-owned restaurant. Last week, the City’s business license panel revoked The Only Sea Food’s permit, after police testified they’d found drugs on the premises and evidence that the restaurant was used for trafficking. Health inspectors also reported the presence of rodents, unplumbed sinks, and filthy, unsanitary conditions. It was one of the worst inspection reports some on the panel had ever seen. The full story ishere.

It’s a familiar tale: storied Vancouver business slowly ground down by neighbourhood that changed around it. Some city residents remember heading to The Only for their famous clam chowder back when the neighbourhood was lit up by neon signs and the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians who’d just stepped off B.C. Electric trolleys (the terminus building is now the Centre A Gallery; building image here.)

In Neon Eulogy (Ekstasis Editions Canada, 2001), author Keith McKellar charts the history of The Only back to 1916, when 20 East Hastings St. was home to the Vancouver Oyster Saloon. That year, brothers Nickolas and Gustave Thodos acquired the restaurant and changed the name to The Only Cafe. They expanded the original space, added an ornamental tin ceiling, and installed a large horseshoe-shaped counter, ringed by 18 stools. Nick ran the place until his death in 1935, then a second generation of the Thodos family took over. Business was brisk: oysters were sourced from Thetis Island; fish was bought from the Campbell Avenue Fish Dock. They sold upwards of 60 lbs of steamed clams a day.

Sometime in the early 1950s, the iconic seahorse sign was added. Designed by Neon Products, it’s a double-faced projection, affixed to the brick building with wires and angle iron. Nick’s second son Tyke Thodos ran The Only up to 1992, then sold it to current owner Wendy Wong, who worked there as a waitress at the time. By then, business had seriously declined, public transit patterns had changed, and most other businesses had fled the neighbourhood, which now had the dubious distinction of being “Canada’s poorest postal code.”

The Only’s doors are now locked. Few seem to have noticed, media coverage was scarce, and Wong now faces drug charges. But the seahorse sign still hangs over the sidewalk, a relic of a bold, optimistic era. Like most neon signs of its time, it was leased to the business owners on a maintenance contract. Neon Products, now owned by Pattison Signs, still owns the sign and the lease expires in June 2010. Joan Seidl, the Museum of Vancouver’s director of collections and exhibitions, hopes it stays where it is. “I would always rather see the signs on the streets, adding to the layers of grit and history that keep Vancouver real.”

Image credit:

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