Bright lights, old city: Remembering Vancouver’s neon glory



In 1953, Neon Products boasted there were 19,000 neon signs in the city of Vancouver — one for every 18 residents.

No more. Times changed, neon faded in popularity, and was even derided as a “sleazy light source” by anti-blight crusaders. In the late 1960s Vancouver council enacted laws that put an end to the big neon spectacular — for decades you couldn’t even put up a flashing neon sign. Today there are only a few dozen of the 19,000 signs left.

Now that they’re almost all gone, the city has had a change of heart. It’s encouraging neon on Granville Street downtown, which has resulted in several wonderful new signs, such as a box of McDonald’s french fries that light up one-by-one.

Elegant new neon signs have also been the crowning touch on beautiful renovations of the Pennsylvania and St. Regis hotels downtown. But even as downtown basks in a new neon glow, many of the city’s best vintage signs continue to disappear.

Ted Harris Paints recently closed at 757 E. Hastings, and the fate of its 1950s sign (five huge neon letters reading “PAINT”) is up in the air. The red and green Wally’s Burgers sign was a landmark on Kingsway from the early ’60s, but it vanished when the business shut down last year. Giant neon signs for San Francisco Pawnbrokers and the B.C. Collateral pawn shop (which read “77 loans”) were Hastings Street staples, but both came down in the last couple of years.

The Only Seafoods neon seahorse is one of the most beloved neon signs in town, but it’s been dark since the historic cafe at 20 E. Hastings closed in June. Another icon, the pink neon pig and moneybag for Save-on-Meats, is still twirling around at 43 W. Hastings, but its long-term future is in doubt as well, after Save-on-Meats closed its doors in March.

So many classic neon signs have been lost, Heritage Vancouver is thinking of putting neon signs on its annual list of Vancouver’s most endangered heritage sites.

“They disappear because they reference the original business, not the business that’s there, and the [new] business doesn’t want them,” says Don Luxton of Heritage Vancouver.

“It’s just of a hell of a time trying to save these things.”

The Vancouver Museum has a collection of vintage neon signs, including classics like the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret (the Buddha’s belly ripples) and the Aristocratic Cafe (featuring the store’s dapper mascot, Risty).

But the museum has limited storage — the Aristocratic sign is so large it won’t fit through the museum’s doors, and had to be displayed outside when the museum put on a neon display. It has recently passed on several old signs, including Wally’s Burgers and Ted Harris Paints.

Neon expert John Atkin thinks the city should rewrite its bylaws to help keep vintage neon signs in place, even if the business they advertised is gone. This is what Burnaby did with the sign for Helen’s Children’s Wear, a delightful neon girl who swings back and forth over the sidewalk. When Helen’s closed, the city rebuilt the sign and reinstalled it on city property.

“Not every sign needs to be saved,” Atkin said.

“But there are many signs with a really good design that should stay. Even the smaller ones contribute enough ambient light to the street that they’re important.

“You only notice something is wrong when they disappear. People complain about Chinatown, that there’s not enough light on the street. That’s because the advertising is gone.”

Chinatown used to have the most dazzling neon signs in Vancouver. Restaurants like the Bamboo Terrace, Ming’s and the WK Gardens were literally covered in giant neon signs. But the restaurants all closed as the area suffered economically, and the neon signs have virtually all disappeared.

Atkin fears the same thing could happen to Hastings, which arguably has Canada’s best collection of vintage neon. Aside from Save-on-Meats and the Only, there’s the swirling circles and jumbled letters of the Ovaltine Cafe, multi-storey neon signs for the Balmoral, Empress, Patricia and Astoria hotels, and the charming green and red neon boot for Dayton’s.

“They become the public art of the street,” Atkin argues.

“When the city partly funded the reconstruction of the 1940s version of the Pennsylvania Hotel

neon sign, they were recognizing the importance of neon to the street. I think they need to go further, and the signs that are remaining should become part of the public art realm. They could either support businesses, or become sculpture.”

In a sense, the old signs are sculptures — many of them were designed by artists.

“Vancouver was slightly unique in that many of the sign designers that were employed at Neon Products and Wallace Neon were art school graduates,” explained Atkin, who helped put together the neon exhibit at the Vancouver Museum a few years ago.

“So there was a greater degree of design and esthetic than some other cities might have had.”

Indeed. In the 1940s and ’50s, Vancouver’s neon artists constantly outdid each other with imaginative designs like the twirling neon coffee cup at the White Lunch Cafe, the giant toast that popped out of a McGavin’s neon toaster, or the lightning bolts that zapped out of the neon Sun sign on the roof of the Sun Tower.

“It was wonderful,” said Norman Young, a retired UBC theatre professor who grew up during neon’s golden era.

“Everything had a neon sign hanging over the door. They always tried to be different, without being really wild, like California signs — the Ovaltine Cafe is an example of what they were like. That was one of the things you looked at, you walked down Granville Street and looked at the wonderful signs.”

The neon age began in 1910, when French businessman Georges Claude perfected neon light and wowed the masses in Paris with the brilliant glow of his signs. (Neon light is made by filling a glass tube with neon gas, adding two sealed electrodes and then applying between 3,000 and 15,000 volts of electricity, which causes an electric discharge and makes the tube glow.)

Neon’s supernatural brightness (signs are visible for kilometres) and vivid colours (up to 200 different hues and shades) made it an instant success, and a natural attraction for businesses trying to catch the eye of passing motorists.

Claude’s company, Claude Neon, brought neon to North America in 1923. In 1924, George Sweeney (of Sweeney Barrels fame) started Neon Products in Vancouver, which is still in business as part of the Jimmy Pattison empire.

“There was an element to Vancouver [that worked with neon],” said Atkin with a laugh.

“It was grey, and wet. Neon and rain and wet streets go hand in hand.”

Christian Dahlberg found this out when he started photographing neon signs in the early 1980s. He has a website devoted to local neon (, and sells prints and fridge magnets of the old signs.

Unfortunately, many of his favourite signs are gone, like the neon waterfall for the Niagara Hotel and the neon pool table, pool balls and pool cues for Seymour Billiards.

He thinks the city should get inventive with its vintage neon signs and find a new outlet to display them, such as the struggling International Village mall near Chinatown.

“It has to attract more people,” notes Dahlberg, who displayed his neon photos at this year’s PNE.

“It has this long corridor in the centre with these great concrete columns. The ceilings are 60 or 70 feet high and can easily hold a lot of neon. That would be a great public museum, a great space for these old neon signs.”

Don Luxton can’t believe the city can’t find a new home for the Ted Harris Paints neon.

“Put it on the side of the damn Sears building — it’s the ugliest building in the city,” he said.

“Seriously, what about putting neon signs on the side of the Sears building? [Granville and Robson is] supposed to be big new plaza/event space.

“I think there are creative ways to handle it, without breaking the bank. The city has a need for an outdoor display space for these vanishing relics. They’re very lively as a street presence.”

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