On a rainy September morning, a long-time 16th Street resident was pulled away from home, dirty, faded and in disrepair. Nine months later, its homecoming was cause for celebration. And in between, the Mercury Cleaners sign was restored, re-engineered, re-wired, repainted and returned to its 1947 glory.
The neon sign’s fate — and that of the business owned by Helen and Tom Kang — was in doubt in early 2014, when the state Department of General Services determined that the building at 1419 16th Street would have to be torn down for environmental cleanup. With help from the Capital Area Development Authority, the Kangs found a new home for their business, across the street in the Legado de Ravel building. But what about the sign?
For the first time, CADA, a state development agency, stepped in to rescue a sign instead of a building. Deputy Executive Director Marc de la Vergne worked on the restoration along with a team of designers, engineers, sheet metal specialists, electricians, painters and a neon bender at Pacific Neon Company.
“Having made the decision to have the sign accompany the Kangs to their new location, we felt it was important to restore the sign and have it be in a position to last another 20, 30 years or even beyond,” de la Vergne says.
To ensure the sign was refurbished in a historically accurate way, original parts were retained whenever possible. But the flashing yellow arrow atop the Mercury Cleaners sign had to be re-engineered for its new location. The original arrow was lit only on one side — the south side — to attract the attention of drivers and pedestrians traveling north on the one-way street. But in its new home, the unlit backside would now be facing traffic. So CADA and Pacific Neon decided to replicate the flashing bulbs to illuminate both sides.
“The sign has been structurally upgraded so that it will last quite a long time,” says de la Vergne. “We also worked hard to find any imperfections, any rust spots or holes in the sheet metal. Those have been filled.”
Neon signs like Mercury Cleaners have significant historic importance both in art and architecture. At the beginning of the save-the-sign process, a state historian reached out to Gretchen Steinberg of Sacramento Modern, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern art, architecture and design. Steinberg has been through this before, actively working to save numerous neon signs.
“We’re at this juncture where we’re trying to be a social worker for the signs that are coming down,” Steinberg says. “Obviously, the Mercury sign being refurbished and reattached to the business is a great win, and that sign in particular is one of our older signs, so it’s been part of the streetscape for a very long time.”
The sign’s restoration is a win for CADA, too, and part of the bigger picture for 16th Street.
“The larger story for CADA is that 16th Street historically was one of the key state highways. It was old Highway 99 for a period of its life, so most of the traffic that was coming from Southern California would have come up 16th Street,” de la Vergne says. “The reason that neon was so important on 16th Street was that it was there to capture the attention of the drivers who were coming up that route, so restoring this sign helps tell that story.”
Since 2003, CADA has been chipping away at development projects designed to fill gaps along 16th Street, including Legado de Ravel and 16 Powerhouse at 16th and P streets. CADA is also a development partner on the Eviva Midtown project, under construction at 16th and N streets. And what about the former Mercury Cleaners site, after DGS finishes its environmental cleanup?
CADA would like to build a mixed-use residential and commercial project that would run from N Street all the way to O Street, de la Verge says. The development would span the alley and incorporate a small pocket park, and apartment units would be split between market-rate and below-market-rate pricing.
But on Friday, June 26, the now-vacant lot at 16th and O was turned into a party site as neighbors gathered — many in 1940s attire — to count down to the relighting of the Mercury Cleaners sign. It’s back now, and shining brighter than ever.
All photos taken by Joan Cusick