Photos from the Vault

Do you remember the Rexall and Safeway signs that were once SLO landmarks?

Jim Jones defended his revolving Rexall Drug sign as a historic San Luis Obispo landmark and an economic necessity in 1988.
Jim Jones defended his revolving Rexall Drug sign as a historic San Luis Obispo landmark and an economic necessity in 1988. Telegram-Tribune

The architecture that I grew up with is now disposable.

If it was built during the Eisenhower-Kennedy era, it is now being judged by another esthetic.

The mid-century design style was identifiable; recent television shows like “Mad Men” use the visual vocabulary of the era to create a powerful sense of place and time.

That era’s cars have fared better with collectors with their chrome fins, push buttons and buxom curves.

Structures from that era, however, generally have been less treasured.

Home improvement television programs show closeups of men and women walking into mid-century modern kitchens, noses twitching with disdain.

The rooms are too small, counters too gross, and soon the sledge hammers come out and the open concept and granite begin to flow. Sometimes they keep the hardwood floors.

I have to admit, low-grade Formica is not my thing. The pioneers of mid-century design introduced some of the first open-concept plans, but those large areas of open space require more expensive and creative engineering. Lesser builders didn’t understand that the esthetic could be more than straight-edge cabinets combined with amoeba shaped counters.

Marsh Street used to have three landmark signs from the mid-century, now sacrificed to the changing fortunes of business and the almighty urban planner.

The Foster’s Freeze sign was the last of a trio of Marsh Street landmarks to fall. It came down in 2014.

The 45-foot tall Safeway sign towered over San Luis Obispo with a 300-square-foot green neon name that blinked from 1956 to September 1988. The replacement was a small monument sign, a tombstone compared to a rocket ship.

Urban design today has buried quirkiness under stucco expanses of bland, anesthetized plainness.

There was a newspaper story when each of these the three Marsh Street landmark signs came down. No story will be written when the uninspired monument sign is replaced because no one will notice or care.

Rexall Drug store owner Jim Jones fought City Hall and won an exemption in 1987 when the City Council declared his sign a landmark, for a while anyway. When Jones sold the store in 1993 to PayLess and retired, the rotating sign was removed.

The irony is that while rotating signs are now illegal for businesses, a rotating artwork was recently installed at the corner of Marsh and Higuera.

Ric Samulski told the story in the April 28, 1988, Telegram-Tribune:

A nuisance or a landmark? Rexall owner irked at city effort to ban his sign

The city thinks the sign in front of Carpenter’s Rexall Drug in San Luis Obispo is ugly.

Jim Jones thinks it’s a historical landmark.

Jones is one of the owners of the drug store on the corner of Marsh and Broad streets and has been given 30 days to remove it.

“The Rexall pole sign is one of the last remaining revolving signs in the city,” said city planner Gary Price in a report to the Architectural Review Commission. He labeled it a “visual nuisance.”

But Jones sees his sign — erected in 1963 — in a different light.

“I’m trying to find out how to declare it a historical landmark. It’s sort of a relic, an antique. It was designed by an outstanding Rexall Drug architect.”

Ken Bruce, a city planner, said that there are more than 200 signs in the city that are considered illegal under a 1977 law. All those illegal signs were scheduled to be eliminated over a 10-year period.

“Ten years was the most time that was granted,” Bruce said.

“The time for the ones that were the most expensive is now up. The Rexall sign is the biggest violator of the rotating sign ordinance.”

But Jones is angry with the city.

“I don’t think they’re in tune with the economy,” he said. “People in government have no business experience.”

Monday evening he appeared before the city’s Architectural Review Commission and tried to get a death-row pardon for his sign.

The pharmacist showed a recent Page 1 article in the Telegram-Tribune to commission members stating that tourism is one of the biggest industries in the county.

His appeal was rejected, however.

“Signs are important to the welfare and safety of the traveler,” Jones said after the meeting.

He also criticized the 1977 ordinance putting all rotating signs on death row. “I think the grandfather clause is illegal, but how do you fight it?”

Jones likened the city ordinance to that school-boy favorite — the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff — which restricted U.S. imports.

“It discourages competition,” Jones said. “The end result is higher prices for the public. Signs are terrifically important to the businessperson.”

Other major signs that the city has scheduled for elimination are owned by Safeway and the Madonna Inn. Owners of illegal signs have the right to request that the ARC exempt their sign from the ordinance.

City planner Judy Lautner predicted that because of the unique character of the Madonna Inn sign, the ARC session on its fate was “likely to be a very emotional meeting.”

Alex Madonna, owner of the Madonna Inn, said he didn’t know if he would fight the city to keep the sign. But he questioned the judgment of city officials. “If we let those people from out of of town run this town for a while, we’ll all want to leave.”

Bruce is optimistic that none of the sign cases will end up in court and said the Planning Department was careful to do its legal homework before going after the Rexall sign.

“We have not had a sign case go to court in recent times.” Jones can appeal the decision of the ARC to the City Council.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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