Before & After: Northernaire Motel

Before & After - Northernaire Motel

Before & After is a series documenting the changes that occur to vintage signs over time, usually due to damage and/or replacement.

Back in November 2011, I drove past an old motel in Maplewood (Minnesota) whose great vintage neon sign I’d first photographed several months prior.  I hadn’t been in that part of town for a while and was shocked to discover that the sign had been replaced with the plastic monstrosity pictured on the right side of the above photo.  I was absolutely horrified when I saw it.  So much so that I went in to talk to the owner about why he made the change.  It turns out it was yet another case of the ongoing maintenance & insurance costs becoming too high for the business owner.  What a complete tragedy.

Peering over the Scenic Signs bone yard fence

Me and my wife peering over the Scenic Sign bone yard fence looking for the old Northernaire sign. No luck.

When I inquired about the location of the old sign, he told me that the sign company that installed the new sign took it with them.  I got the name of that company (Scenic Sign Corp. out of Sauk Rapids, MN) and called them first thing the next morning.  When I spoke to the project manager for that installation job, he told me that most of the sign had already been scrapped. I say “most” because the arrow that sat on top was given to the owner of the restaurant that sits next door to the motel (see: Huey’s).  He asked the crew for it in exchange for free lunches.  Anyway, I told the project manager to call me when he has signs like this in the future.  I’d love to save them from the junk yard and one day either restore them and/or put them on display for future generations to enjoy.  I think I’m going to need a bigger garage if he ever starts calling.

A couple weeks later, some friends were showing my wife and I the signage around the St. Cloud area.  We wound up meandering our way into the neighboring town of Sauk Rapids, so I made a point to look up the address for Scenic Sign.  It was a weekend so I knew I had little chance of talking to anyone in person – I just wanted to see what there was to see.  What we found was a large fenced-off “bone yard” of signs that the company had removed right behind the building.  If by chance the old Northernaire sign was still around, this is where it most likely would have been.  Upon jumping up on the fence and peeking over, there were plenty of signs to be seen, but hardly any of them were neon.  Mostly just old plastic signage from fast food restaurants and car dealerships… nothing that deserved a place in any museum.

Needless to say, this story does not have a happy ending.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that I walked away from this experience with the sense that having the right connections at various sign installation companies might put me in a position to save future signs from a meeting a similar fate.  Here’s to hoping anyway.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Cheryl says:

    Even if there wasn’t a happy ending, I like to think that you raised awareness of the value of old signs just by talking to the owner about it. From some experience I have in historic preservation I know that insurance companies (and banks) are often the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes that lead to demolition of perfectly useful objects and buildings, as you also found out from the owner. How to enlighten those guys??? Keep up the documentation and advocacy.

    • recapturist says:

      All very good points, Cheryl. Thanks for the comment.

      Another factor I’ve noticed is that many motel owners these days are not from the US and therefore often do not have the same sense of nostalgia attached to the these vintage neon signs. Preservation is simply not a consideration… but in fairness, that attitude exists in several people from this country as well.

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