Friday 27 March 2009

Heritage Preservation Run Amok

I come down strongly in favour of preserving heritage structures, 99% of the time. But every now and again heritage fervor becomes misguided and goes right off the rails. 

Bowell-MacLean (originally Bowell-McDonald) was a GM car dealership in Vancouver for decades and they were one of the biggies. They had a car lot on Broadway for years. The lot wasn't hard to find since it had a sign the size of an eight storey building which would have compared favourably with just about anything in Las Vegas at the time. Apparently it could be seen from 18 miles away. For a brief time it was the largest sign in North America. 

I think I remember the sign pretty well, it was black with yellow and orange lettering and thousands of lights, incandescent marquee type lights and neon lights which appeared to be constantly in motion. It even had an elevator inside for the maintenance guys. 

As happens, Bow Mac eventually went belly up. A piddly used car outfit took over the lot on Broadway and managed to get the use of the name Bow Mac. They couldn't afford to maintain the sign properly, they painted it pink and blue and turned off most of the lights. Then they went belly up.

In the '90s Toys R Us came along wanting to build a store on the property. The heritage preservationists rose in a clamor claiming the sign had significant heritage value and ought to be saved. A drawn out public debate ensued and sadly, in this case, the preservationists won. Actually, the real winner was Toys R Us since they got a sign which is hundreds of times larger than anything they would have been permitted to install under current city by-laws.

If the sign had been restored to it's original state I'd have probably been in favour of keeping it. The way things turned out I wish it had been dismantled. 

I have to thank John at Pattison Sign Group for providing me with the only photo I could locate anywhere of the sign from back in the day. 


Lois said...

I totally agree with you on this! Very interesting story.

istanbuldailyphoto said...

Color signs is great. Your street clean. And people in the photos there is a depth.

Virginia said...

Well that's the craziest thing I ever heard! They Toys R Us sign looks silly in front of that Bow Mac sign. Makes you wonder doesn't it!

Anonymous said...

Oh no, that's just ridiculous! I'm with you on this all the way.

Kim said...

I love vintage signs, but it's ridiculous to have gone to these lengths. Shoulda included a "you can't obscure the sign in any way" clause in the agreement. I wonder if in 50 to 75 years the Toys R Us signs and other current commercial entities' signs will be as dear to people as these old signs are to the current generations. Very cool photo and story!

Ken Mac said...

I find it fascinating that your town fathers are prescient enough to preserve old signs. In New YOrk entire buildings that deserve preservation get the axe. It's so political. Once a building is about to landmarked, the owner can actually desecrate the facade, and Whala!no more landmark consideration. That happened with a school in the east village. So I admire your town!