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Monday, March 15, 2010

A FAMILY AND ITS NEON SIGN

NIGHT TIME IN FRONT OF THE 1939 OLIVER BUILDING IN BEREA, KENTUCKY

Around 1950, L. Marion Oliver, an accountant, insurance agent and an attorney installed this overhanging neon sign on his business in Berea, Kentucky. Its luminous light became a beacon of advertising along the main route through the small town. This beacon of light was called a neon sign and was a new type of store signage in the U. S. beginning in the 20s and 30s. Today it still lights up at night on Chestnut street as the second generation of Oliver brothers carry on this family type of business -- Rodger Oliver as an attorney and Doug Oliver as a certified account. They chose to keep the sign as they figured it was not only a family heirloom but a community heirloom.


THE OLIVER BROTHERS, RODGER AND DOUG, WITH PORTRAIT OF THEIR FATHER, L. MARION OLIVER

The two-story brick Oliver building was built by the Oliver brother's father. A brass plate by the front entrance door announces the building date. The building could be called art modern of the 50s. In excellent shape both within and out reflects the, "pride of place," of the Oliver's. When L. Marion Oliver built the building he incorporated two apartments in the back where both immediate family and an aunt lived for a while. Today the Oliver's rent the apartments.

A third generation, a daughter, an attorney, practiced in the building for a while before she was elected as a judge.


OLIVER SIGN HANGING ON BUILDING

Neon signs have had their ups and downs since hitting the commercial world in the U. S. about 80 years ago. After their flurry of success they tended to bow to plastic signage that came in with the plastic revolution. The beautiful neon's took a dive with the exception of owners that maintained their neon signs. A few of the reasons that neon's had a difficult time staying in the lime light was changes in ownership, sloppy maintenance, zoning regulations, and the general populace feeling that that were passe.

Sometime during the Oliver's neon sign's history the city of Berea passed an ordinance that there were to be no overhanging (the sidewalk) signs installed on Berea's commercial buildings. Luckily, after the Oliver's request to grandfather their sign in, the neon got a reprieve from the new regulation and remained in place. Their experience is an example of how zoning regulations nationwide could cause these brilliant signs to be extracted from buildings.


DAYTIME VIEW OF THE NEON OLIVER SIGN

As I talked with Doug and Rodger Oliver I realized the importance of remnants and pieces of a town's local businesses. These "pieces" are a sign of continuity for the community and should be encouraged by the town's folks to remain as reminders of the town's sense of place.

To enjoy the revival of neon signs visit these links:

Museum of Neon Art

Roadside Peek

Ecology of Absence

2 comments:

  1. This is just fabulous stuff, Barb! How really, really neat! I've always LOVED neon! In the Pacific Northwest, nights were often rainy. Coming home from a late evening shopping with my parents, sitting in the back seat of their 1941 Chrysler (they went all the way from Seattle to Detroit to buy it and pick it up new from the factory...a really big deal back then!)I loved looking out the rain-spattered window at the wet, shiney streets with the reflections of all the neon lights as we drove through Bremerton--a veritable kaleidoscope! What a delightful post and lots to follow up on if you love neon like I do! I, too, believe that such symbols of Americana should be preserved. You're so right --and so are the Olivers--to believe the heritage belongs to the community.

    Thanks so much for a great post!
    Elora

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  2. Elora, I too lived in the Pacific Northwest for a while as an adult. The rainy and overcast days were so constant in the winter. I can visualize you as a child viewing the neons from your backseat. Your family must have bought a car the last year they were available from the car manufacturers in Detroit -- before the factories were all retooled for the war effort. I was raised outside of Detroit and come from a long line of people associated with the car industry. I am so glad that you liked the post. And you are so kind to give me such a nice response. I am wondering how the heck you ended up in West Virginia (another place I lived as an adult and thought it was beautiful). Washington is such a beautiful state too as is Oregon. Thank you Eldora -- barbara

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