What better way to advertise your car dealership than a 29-metre-high sign gilded with neon and 1,200 light bulbs? Built in 1958 by Bowell McLean (BowMac) on West Broadway, then known as Vancouver's Auto Row, the largest illuminated structure in Vancouver outside of downtown's BC Electric Building was visible from nearly 30 kilometres away. The Las Vegas-esque marquee was also the largest freestanding sign on the continent, and although its sheer size made it distinct, it wasn't entirely out of place within a city known as North America's neon capital.
By the 1950s, Vancouver was entrenched in neon mania. As a business owner, it was impossible to resist the urge of installing a kitschy sign of your own on the front face of your building. For the dealerships stretching along Auto Row, each garnering for attention, a declarative sign was practically a necessity, and depending on its whimsy, could engender a competitive edge. In 1934, the Vancouver Sun wrote: "Vancouver is a city of perpetual fête...Vancouver has no rival and her signs will continue to illuminate her business section with a brilliance and variety that is a source of pride to her residents and a surprise to her guests."
At one point, there was one neon sign for every 18 people in the city. Their proliferation had originally been viewed as an essential ingredient to Vancouver's urban health. There was no mistaking that the signs had crafted a unique identity for the city. But opposing voices — targeting what they viewed as an increasingly messy urban fabric — would rally officials for stronger sign bylaws. With planners and the Vancouver Community Arts Council on board, the systematic extermination of neon signage became a priority. A greater emphasis was put on tying urban Vancouver to its natural surroundings, and pulling its identity from these inborn assets, rather than manmade constructs. It was a watershed moment for the city that continues to guide its growth agenda today.
Amendments to the sign bylaw in 1967 and 1974 brought sweeping change to the landscape. More recent legislative changes have laid protections upon view corridors, impacting superficial building extensions. The BowMac sign managed to escape eradication and remained a non-conforming use under the bylaw well into the 1990s, when demolition of the landmark was floated.
Yet one of the prime offenders of the city's newfound zeitgeist, a sign so glaring that it helped sparked a comprehensive clampdown on its kind, found friends at city hall. The planning and heritage departments opposed the idea of demolition and codified their stance in 1997. A Heritage Revitalization Agreement was approved with incoming retailer Toys 'R' Us, who were permitted to attach their logo over the existing BowMac sign. The agreement saved the structure from demolition, but also created a frankensign that largely diminishes its heritage value.
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