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Disappearing Retro Signs

[KOSU Radio Commentary]

I don’t know about you, but the staycations are starting to make me a little stay-crazy. The other day, I said to my husband, Robert, let’s take the kids to Albuquerque for the weekend. We’ll stay in a hotel and the kids will swim in the pool all day long. It’ll be awesome, just like when we were kids.

He said OK and then he fired up the search engine and we tried to find that hotel. You know the one. The clean, roadside Holiday Inn with the lit arrow sign. It was like a carnival springing up in the desert of night.

Vintage Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn, 1961 by M. Warren Williams via Flickr | Greensboro, North Carolina | Courtesy

But, instead, we navigate to a resort with golf, a zip line and bike trails. The phrase, “vacation packages,” deflates me like batteries-not-included on Christmas morning.

As a kid, my family stayed in dozens of cheap motels across the country. We’d swim in the pool all day long and at night dive for pennies by pool light.

The next day, after pancakes and syrup we’d do it again, until noon when we had to pack up our suitcases and turn in the room key.

Lockheed Shopping Center Midwest City

Photo by Woodyrr via Flickr | CC License Applies

There were many kitschy motel signs on our trips across America. They were eye-candy on the roadside, three equal parts of lighting, sculpture and billboard.

Retro Sign Language

Over the last five years, I’ve photographed many retro signs throughout Oklahoma, from the Dairy Boy in Lexington to the Catalina Motel on Shields Boulevard. But, one by one they’re disappearing. 

The Lockheed Shopping Center boomerang sign on Air Depot in Midwest City is gone.

 The green Standard Engraving Sign on Main Street – gone.  

The vintage sign at the old Beverly’s Pancake House – gone.

The old sign at Olivet Baptist Church – gone. They replaced with a backlit sign. 

Quy Lin Vintage Chop Suey Chinese Restaurant Sign

Chop Suey sign | Jason B. via Flickr | CC License

In 2006, we lost the Ouy Lin Chop Suey neon treasure near 12th Street.  It had charm the super buffets could only wish for. 

I love progress and development, but sometimes, it cuts off its nose to spite its face. Also, so many wonderful signs have been sacrificed for polite and boring corporate imagery. In the Happy Bunny vernacular, some beautification projects make me throw up a little.

Treasure Trove of Retro Signs

Holly Baumann Ambuehl, a commercial photographer, has photographed what she calls a treasure trove or retro-modern artifacts. These include the drive-thru lanes on the old Central Bank on Classen and The Lunch Box in downtown Oklahoma City.

“As the city grows and changes,” she writes, “I hope the community will work together to preserve these gorgeous examples of days gone by.”

That’s exactly what Mod Betty from Pennsylvania is trying to do. She documents roadside architecture on her website, RetroRoadmaps. She wants to encourage business owners to keep and maintain vintage signs, not replace them with backlit plastic.

Signs reflect our culture and technology. In addition, they tell stories, evoke memories and serve as landmarks. The broken and abandoned retro signs across Oklahoma represent more than visual clutter. They are folk art widely collected by museums. We should preserve all that we have left…

Finally, what’s your favorite retro sign?

Retro Signs in Oklahoma City


Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Jorelle

    I was doing an internet search for Standard Engraving for work purposes and came across your post. I thought you’d like to know the old SE sign is now happily immortalized inside the former Standard Engraving building, which is now a residence with retail office space. You can see the sign right now in this sale flyer, but I don’t know how long it will be posted (the building’s not for sale any more), so look while you can:

    Thanks for the post!

    • Jennifer

      Thanks for letting me know and leaving the link. That is a gorgeous sign and it looks amazing on that brick wall!

  2. Steven Mark


    Neon Signs

  3. Jennifer

    Thanks for letting me know about it. I’d like to get my hands on a copy.

  4. Brett

    The Sirloin Stockade in Ardmore still has one of the big bulls, but it’s at ground level instead of up high.

  5. Andi Fisher

    I don’t for certain that they don’t exist but during all my experiences in Europe I don’t remember seeing any. There may be parts of Europe where they exist. I can’t recall seeing any in China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, but they might be in other parts of Asia. It feels like it is American only, but I wonder about Canada and South America – it is intriguing!

  6. Jennifer

    Andi – You inspired this commentary. That photo you posted from your road trip got my wheels turning. Thanks! I wish I’d known signs like this aren’t seen in Europe. That is an interesting tidbit. I love the idea of all these treasures being Americana.

  7. Jennifer

    At least some of those are still around. I read that there are no more of those holiday inn signs anywhere. I don’t know how that can be. A few are gathering dust in museums.

  8. Jennifer

    I miss them! And, I treasure what we have left.

  9. Jennifer

    Unfortunately, no. They won’t let it go by. A terrible thing has happened. Everyone’s discovered good taste. =)

  10. Brett

    I can’t get over how busy that Holiday Inn sign is; can you imagine a brander or marketing consultant today letting one like that get by?

  11. Rose Byrd

    WOW–does THIS bring back a lot of wonderful memories!  Even when this boomer was raising children, there were still some wonderfully gaudy motel signs on many highways!

  12. yogiabb

    I agree with Andi Fisher, its total Americana. Way back in the days before GPS’s and Google Maps when I traveled on business you could always spot those gigantic Holiday Inn signs a long ways off.

    I miss the smaller signs also. The guys who did radiator work or sharpened saws or fixed lawn mowers and other small businesses had cool signs and those are disappearing also.

  13. Mercedes Millberry Fowler

    Tulsa Foundation for Architecture produced a booklet document the top Neon signs in the Tulsa area. It was tied to a grant they received to create an archive of neon signs in the area. Great resource for those who love retro signs. And Ralph Cole did a great job photographing the signs for the booklet. 

  14. Andi Fisher

    I am totally and completely head over heels with retro signs. I make my husband stop to take pictures of them all the time, now days they are few and far in between those signs. It makes me sad too. Also, you just made me wonder if this is only an American thing because I cannot for the life of me recall any of these signs in any of my European travels or living and working in Madrid, Switzerland and France.  It is total Americana and I love it!

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