The 15-year effort to bathe Broadway with neon light — echoing back to its hey day as the city's premier automobile alley — is set to get its biggest addition yet with recreation of a 24-by-23-foot “Buick” rooftop sign that likely will be seen from miles away.
Chris Fleming, a partner in the Midtown Renaissance development group, said the sign is being modeled after one pictured atop the four-story former dealership at 1101 N Broadway more than a half century ago.
“It's one of the more prominent buildings along Automobile Alley, and certainly it marks the end on the strip due to its scale, which will be further amplified by having a sign like this on top of it,” Fleming said.
“Signs like this add to the sense of place. You look at Automobile Alley, and something that is a big characteristic of Automobile Alley are its neon signs. We hope this will be the cherry on top of the sundae of what's already being created.”
Plans for the Buick sign must be approved at this month's meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee.
The sign will be built by J&B Graphics, which also assembled the signage at the new home of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and the entry sign to the Stockyards district.
“This is an old-style, retro look, where we will be taking the Buick logo and creating lettering 9 inches thick,” said J&B Graphics owner Bob Morris. “The way it's designed, the Buick name will look like it's floating in the air. It will be a real showpiece.”
The idea to bathe Broadway in neon lighting dates back to 1998, when the Kirkpatrick Foundation agreed to offer $10,000 grants in partnership with the Automobile Alley Association. Since then, more than a dozen neon signs have gone up along Automobile Alley, which spans Broadway between NW 4 and NW 13.
Architect Rand Elliott, who helped developer Nick Preftakes with the first neon display, the Hudson-Essex sign at 825 N Broadway, has high praise for the planned Buick rooftop sign.
“I think it's very cool,” Elliott said. “It's absolutely terrific.”
Elliott, one of the founding members of the Automobile Alley Association, credits the neon sign effort with helping bring life back to an area that already was in decline before the 1995 Murrah Building bombing. Broadway was left in shambles by the attack, with property owners facing demolition of many of the century-old buildings without serious investment.
Broadway since has undergone a transformation topping $50 million.
The last of the empty buildings along Automobile Alley at 1100 and 1101 N Broadway, and the last boarded-up building, the 109-year-old Hotel Marion, are to be redeveloped next year by Midtown Renaissance. The neon signs cast a warm glow at night on a block that little resembles the blight that existed in the mid-1990s.
“It all got started as part of us being the first urban Main Street program in Oklahoma,” Elliott said. “We were looking for ways to identify the neighborhood … We created the name Automobile Alley, did the medallions on the street … we did the banners on the poles to identify the district. And we were looking for ways to add energy to the neighborhood.”
With the grants provided by the Kirkpatrick Foundation, funded through the association's annual Chocolate Decadence festival, Elliott is convinced the goal of adding a neon sign to every building along Broadway is within reach.
Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City Inc., sees the Buick sign as a game-changer in the branding of Automobile Alley.
“The retro-rooftop sign will serve as a district marker and let people they have arrived in a significant place,” Jenkins said.
“This nod to the past within a modern context is an excellent example of how to create a contemporary sense of place in a historic district.”