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Saving Signs of Past Times. Preservationists are taking a second look at the urban landscape and advertising signs. COMMERCIAL HERITAGE

IS a vintage or unique sign art or eyesore? A cultural artifact or tacky commercial advertising? Removed from its original site, a beautiful sign may end up in any of several places - the junkyard, some pricey antiques store, or maybe - just maybe - a museum. The Society for Commercial Archaeology believes that signage, especially nostalgic signage, has aesthetic value and is tackling the question of which signage should be earmarked for preservation.

The most ardent restorers of old signs are private individuals motivated by either profit or a yen for collecting. One restaurant chain, Houlihan's, is characterized by scads of original vintage signs.

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``The collector's market, that's one way to preservation,'' says Mike Jackson, the tall, bearded president of the Society for Commercial Archaeology. ``But collectors are very personal and quirky. They take things out of context and don't necessarily see things they collect as being part of a broad cultural pattern. Whereas our organization sees things - signs - as historians might, and we like to see them in their original context as much as possible ... and reused whenever possible. Signs can have a long, active life.''

The nonprofit SCA, founded in 1977, has attracted historians, preservationists, planners, architects, and lovers of pop culture, all of whom have a common interest - preserving artifacts, signs, and symbols of America's commercial process.

As a group, they say all too many features of the commercial environment are fast disappearing without being analyzed, recorded, or preserved. Diners, animated neon signs, Route 66 - the history of these things is so recent that most people do not regard them in a historical context.

Though most of the SCA's preservation efforts have involved buildings, the organization has plans for sign preservation, too. Peter Phillips, a Gloucester, Mass., planner, has submitted a model sign preservation ordinance to the American Planning Association (APA) in Chicago.

After a review by that body, the text is slated for discussion at the National Main Street Conference to be held in Austin, Texas, later this month. If approved, the model ordinance will go out to planning officials and landmarks associations across the country to aid in local preservation decisions.

Attached will be photographs of various categories of signs with features the SCA considers important.

This will be the first time the Main Street Conference has ever broached the topic of historic signs. Peter Phillips is cautiously optimistic. ``Organizations like the APA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are just now beginning to recognize that there are historic signs worth preserving,'' he says.

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The movement has gathered steam, Mr. Phillips maintains, because of negative public reaction to overly restored historic districts. ``Too many downtown areas and historic districts have taken the approach of eliminating all old signs in order to start over with a clean slate,'' he explains.

``That's been the MO for 15 to 20 years, since there've been sign ordinances, and now people are saying we don't like these cutesy, sterile historic districts.''

MANY of the newer municipal sign ordinances contain amortization clauses, which call for the removal of older, nonconforming signs. Ordinances often restrict or prohibit flashing lights and moving parts on signs; square footage of signs; placement of the sign on the building fa,cade or rooftop; and illumination of signs.

``The amortization clause is the corollary opposite to the grandfather clause, which exempts already existing signs from mandatory removal as long as they remain unaltered from their original state,'' says Mike Jackson in a telephone interview from Springfield, Ill., where he works as chief architect for the state's Historic Preservation Agency.

Mr. Jackson stresses that the SCA's model ordinance includes not only historic signs, but also signs of artistic and cultural value - things that most historic preservation ordinances don't consider. This concept protects quite a number of signs, but not all. Says Jackson, ``The profession is looking to modify the amortization principle rather than promote a blanket grandfather clause for all signs.''

The obvious advantage of a culturally sensitive sign ordinance is that it would give communities a set of criteria to examine and thereby avoid costly and lengthy individual sign preservation battles.

``For every community it comes down to someone having to make a judgment whether a sign is just a piece of commercial advertising or whether it's a piece of American culture worthy of preservation. In Massachusetts, they recently debated the merits of a Coke sign all the way to the state legislature. That shows you how involved it can become. I can see that same kind of debate ... taking place in local planning commissions all over the country.''

The Coca-Cola sign Jackson refers to was a neon and electric spectacular that once marked the Cambridge entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. People liked its 1950s styling; they liked the way it was reflected in the Charles River. One day it was dormant, its fate dependent on the building's new owners. In strode Arthur Krim, a founding member of the SCA and one of the most active voices in sign advocacy today. Mr. Krim, who teaches a course titled Urban Geography at Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., and once worked for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, began a phone campaign to save the sign. That was nine years ago. The effort became mired in politics, says Krim. In the meantime, the sign disappeared.

Sound like a defeat? Well, yes, but that's just one battle in the large conflict. All was not lost, however, for dealing with bureaucracies, corporations, and the news media gave Krim the vocabulary he needed to hone his powers of persuasion - which he used on the Citgo Company.

SAVING the pulsing neon Citgo sign in Boston's Kenmore Square - ``the Eiffel Tower of Boston'' - is undoubtedly the greatest victory in sign preservation to date.

Initiated by Krim, the effort took four years, involving so many twists and turns that to give a chronology of events would be tedious. But sign aficionados might gain insight from Krim's technique: Is there a discernible method to this sign-saving process, or does he simply charm the Powers That Be into submission?

``It's just a matter of gaining the trust of the major parties and convincing them through humor and logic that this sign, whatever it may be, is worth their restoration efforts,'' Krim says.

For instance, one of his arguments for the Citgo sign was that it serves as a beacon of orientation in Boston's confused street system. ``That was how I justified it,'' he says, ``and people accepted it.''

Krim also had no qualms about identifying himself with the SCA, replete with scholarly connotations, not to mention an office in the Smithsonian Institution.

``The actual name of the society sounds so serious,'' he explains, ``that it acts as an enticement for those who want to get involved in the project. When these corporations hear the name - we even have commercial in the title - they think, `Gee, we have a scholarly organization willing to back our commercial instincts.'''

Krim says that in the early days no one had ever heard of the society. ``Still,'' he put in, ``I was using the name to gain professional recognition, if not clout, as I was calling people on the phone, which is how it's all done.''

And the concept of ``commercial archaeology'' proved attractive to the news media.

Preservation efforts take a good deal of time and energy. Perhaps the model sign ordinance will be taken seriously by planning commissions so that individuals like Krim don't have to siphon their own resources to fight for each imperiled sign. Many of these artifacts have become an important part of America's material culture.

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