By Katherine Hon | Past Matters
If you are a fan of classic neon signs, you will be glad to know the shoe-hammering elf has returned to 2911 University Ave. in North Park.
On this animated neon sign, the industrious elf hammers on a shoe, with his arm and hammer moving into three positions. Originally, as the hammer struck the shoe, neon sparks would fly into the elf’s eye, causing him to “wink.” The elf’s eye was a small light bulb that winked on and off.
The west half of the space now occupied by Holsem Coffee was most recently Chito’s Shoe Repair, the last in a long line of shoe-related shops in the large building that houses multiple businesses at the southeast corner of University Avenue at 29th Street. Universal Boot Shop was the first, arriving at 2917 University Ave. in 1932.
The elf neon sign was designed in 1949 for Wink’s Shoe Repair Shop at 411 Broadway in Downtown. Wink’s became part of the 30-store American Shoe Repair chain in 1952, although the store kept its original name. The new business owner, Irving Hertz, moved the sign to his American Shoe Repair store in North Park in 1960. In 1962, Michael DeTuri kept the neon shining when he bought the North Park store and named it DiTuri’s Shoe Repair.
In 1989, Glen Leisch briefly owned the shop, calling it the Shoe Palace. He wanted historic designation for the sign, which was in poor repair by that time, to help him restore it to original working condition, including the moving arm, flashing spark and winking eye. Without designation, the city’s sign ordinance would not allow the animated elements to be restored. Helen Halmay, who now helps run the historical organization Congress of History, prepared the nomination. The neon elf was designated as city of San Diego historic resource No. 239 on Sept. 27, 1989.
The historic designation report noted that the neon sign “is a unique, historical, animated neon sign, particularly beloved by the people of North Park for … decades. There is none other like it in the city …” The resolution approving the nomination stated that the sign “is significant for its association with the North Park business community and as a rare example of the technology and craftsmanship of neon sign making in the 1940s and 1950s.”
Chris Martinez of Chito’s Shoe Repair bought the business in 1991. When he and his wife Jenny moved Chito’s to 2936 Lincoln Ave. in 2013, they were saddened to learn they could not take the neon sign with them without conducting a long and expensive process involving a site development permit. Location, or setting, is an important aspect of most historic resources. The staff report for the sign’s historic designation in 1989 noted, “Since the preservation of these signs is a means to maintain the historic fabric of a community, the signs should, whenever possible, remain in the community where they have established an historic association.”
The couple loved the sign so much, they had a smaller version created for their window on Lincoln Avenue.
Meanwhile, back on University Avenue, the elf disappeared last summer during building facade changes. Distraught community members contacted the North Park Historical Society, which contacted City Historical Resources Board (HRB) staff. To make a long story a little shorter, the removal of the sign became a code enforcement issue. Kudos to HRB staff member Jodie Brown for working diligently with the current building owner and architect to get the neon sign restored and back in its approximate location on the storefront.
Dan Soderberg, a big fan of neon, was ecstatic to discover the elf was back. He founded San Diego Historic Neon on Facebook as a place to view and share images of vintage/historic neon with emphasis on the greater San Diego region. Another feature of the page is called “Neon Road Trip” showing great neon from all locations, near and far. Scroll down to 2014 for a great photo of the elf when it was lit in all its glory. Soderberg took a current photo for this article and observed, “While all the neon has been re-lit, you have to be very patient to see the animated feature of the sign. What was once a lively motion of the hammer striking the shoe now takes several minutes. And the eye doesn’t ‘wink’ at us anymore.”
But those who appreciate what may be North Park’s most amusing designated historic resource are very happy to see the industrious elf again.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at email@example.com or 619-294-8990.