By Katherine Hon
Although the duration of the current world-wide public health crisis is unknown, our community will certainly survive it. The history of the large neon North Park sign in University Avenue west of 30th Street demonstrates North Park’s resilience. The sign we see today is only 27 years old, but the original sign’s story started 85 years ago in the midst of the Great Depression.
The concept of a large electric sign stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk above the street originated with the North Park Business Men’s Club, who requested city council permission “to illuminate the Thirtieth and University Ave. corner with a brightly lighted sign at night,” as reported in the Evening Tribune’s February 27, 1935 issue. The minutes from the February 26, 1935 council meeting reflect approval for the city attorney to prepare an amendment to the building code regarding electric signs.
At the April 24, 1935 council meeting, an amendment to existing Ordinance No. 13375 adding new section 5003-B PERMANENT SIGNS OVER PUBLIC PROPERTY (Ordinance No. 646, new series) was approved unanimously by the five attending council members. The new ordinance section allowed permanent electric signs to be erected “across the public streets and highways…provided that no such sign is used to advertise a particular company, concern, occupation, business, material, commodity or product.”
Confident of city council approval, the business club announced a drive to raise money on March 28, 1935. The real estate office of W. J. Stevens at 2932 University Avenue served as campaign headquarters for the effort. But it was the women of North Park who took the lead on the fundraising task. The San Diego Union’s March 31, 1935 issue reported under the headline “Women Go After Community Sign,” that the “North Park Business club perhaps is the only club of its kind in San Diego that has an auxiliary. A group of women — a majority of them wives of members of the business club — have organized. At present the women have one objective — a large Neon sign at Thirtieth at University, so Expo. visitors may know they are in the North Park district.”
“Expo” referred to the California Pacific International Exposition held in Balboa Park from May 29, 1935 to November 11, 1935 and extended for a second year to September 9, 1936. The Exposition was organized to promote San Diego and help the local economy during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1941.
Among other events, the North Park auxiliary held a benefit party at the “Tent” ballroom in the Nordberg building — now home of North Park Fitness — on April 24, 1935. Fundraising efforts were successful, the sign was created, and the San Diego Union’s July 7, 1935 issue summarized the dedication event held the day before under the headline “Mayor Dedicates North Park Sign.” Mayor Percy Benbough praised the North Park area for its “civic progress,” and thousands of people joined in the celebration.
In an announcement of new officers for the business club and auxiliary, the San Diego Union’s December 4, 1935 issue noted, “The auxiliary came into public notice less than a year ago when it raised $400 to install the large Neon sign at Thirtieth st. and University ave.” A new business person was quoted as coming to North Park because “they are up-and-doing folks. I wish that San Diego had more districts like the North Park go-getters.”
Fast forward about 30 years, and the story takes a sad turn. The San Diego Union’s January 15, 1966 issue showed a photograph of the venerable neon North Park sign being removed to “be replaced by a revolving sign.” The change was noted as being a project of the North Park Business Club. For whatever reasons — perhaps because by that time local stores were losing business to regional shopping malls — the sign was not replaced. Decades of business doldrums passed.
During the 1980s, community efforts began for creating a replacement sign. In November 1987, a wooden replica of the scalloped shaped sign proclaiming “North Park – Home of the Famous Toyland Parade” was placed at Boundary Street and University Avenue. The 18-foot-long redwood sign was carved by Kent Johnson. The $3,182 cost of the sign was funded by local merchants and the North Park Business Association (NPBA) — successor of the business club — managed at the time by Executive Director Karen Arter.
North Park lore of vandals damaging the wooden sign in January 1988 and the sign’s subsequent repair by volunteers is documented by several news stories. The San Diego Union’s January 7, 1988 issue reported, “Cops have suspect in vandalism of sign.” The article noted, “Business owners who found their newly erected community sign splashed with red paint Saturday night have received several offers to repair or replace the damaged sign — at no cost.” The report continued that although the damage to the sign was discouraging, “it also served to generate interest in its repair and has helped to start a separate fund for a larger, overhead sign similar to the ones that now mark the Hillcrest and Kensington communities.”
The San Diego Union’s February 7, 1988 issue announced “North Park sign fixed” and stated, “Volunteers from the North Park Business Association yesterday re-erected the community sign that vandals splashed with red paint on Jan. 2.” In April 1988, a sign drive was initiated to raise $35,000 for a new community sign to span University Avenue at 30th Street. That effort would take another five years.
By 1993, sufficient funds had been acquired from local, state and federal sources. A new sign designed by Wieber Nelson Design and constructed by California Neon was officially lit in a joyful dedication ceremony on October 13, 1993. The sign was placed on an attractive pedestal in the middle of University Avenue west of 30th Street.
“Every TV station covered it in its news segments that evening and the San Diego Daily Transcript put the event on its front page that same day,” according to the North Park News’ November 1993 issue, which covered the event in a two-page spread with 13 photos by Bill Vandermolen. VIPs pictured included Mayor Susan Golding, Councilmember John Hartley, future Councilmember Christine Kehoe, NPBA Executive Director and sign committee chair Mark Hannon, NPBA President Dorothy Petree, and NPBA Vice President Joe Schloss.
The project resulted from the efforts of many. In the North Park News’ October 1993 issue, Mark Hannon noted, “there are more than 100 persons out there that had something vital to do with the North Park Sign returning.”
But what of the wooden sign at Boundary Street and University Avenue? Was it lost when the gateway art sculpted by Anne Mudge was installed at the intersection in August 1999? Amazingly, the story of the wooden sign continues to this day. When the wooden sign was removed, Patrick Edwards, long-time North Park businessman and community advocate, took it to his shop on Utah Street. He later convinced Union Bank to hang it on a wall inside their building at University Avenue and 30th Street along with their many framed photographs of historic North Park. The sign was removed when the bank redecorated, and Edwards took it back into his care.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Union Bank North Park branch re-mounted the wooden sign where it could be admired once again? This would be a wonderful gift to the community, especially now. That wooden sign and the neon sign in University Avenue both reflect the perseverance of the North Park business community through many challenging times.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at email@example.com or 619-294-8990.