Defining the 23rd Letter

Arrow Sign Co. plays a key role in branding Hollywood’s W Hotel.
June 10 W1.jpg

In 1923, Hollywood, CA, bustled with commercial activity. Movie studios opened all over town, and many iconic signs that identified the now-famous landmarks sprouted like wildflowers across the Los Angeles hills. While oil discoveries, such as those in nearby Long Beach, propelled America’s love affair with the automobile, local land developers hired Crescent Sign Co. to erect the massive “Hollywoodland” sign to advertise an under-construction housing development. During the 1950s, the sign was contracted to, simply, “Hollywood.”

The landmark’s rise to prominence coincided with a three-fold increase in the number of automobiles on the road from 1920 to 1923. With so many people speeding by in their fancy new motorcars, signmakers worked hard to keep up. Small, discreet signs were on the way out; large-scale spectaculars became all the rage.

In January 2006, a team of professionals began planning an important cog in the current generation of iconic signs worthy of Hollywood’s upscale, yet flashy, image. The W Hotel project started as a vision HKS Inc., an architectural firm, cultivated on behalf of Starwood Resorts, operators of the high-end W chain, which includes approximately 30 hotels worldwide. In addition to the architects, key project players included environmental-graphic designers Sussman/Prejza (Culver City, CA); Webcor Builders (San Mateo, CA), the construction contractor; DCI Engineers (Seattle), the structural engineer; Van Wagner Advertising (Los Angeles), which managed the property’s ad panels; and Arrow Sign Co. (Oakland, CA).

Shortly after the W’s development process began, Arrow also fabricated signage for an adjacent project, the Legacy Apartments, which included many of the same principals and a concurrent development and production timeline. Charlie Stroud, Arrow’s president, became involved when he created structural drawings and assessments that defined the scope of the work. He said, “Handling two separate, major projects was very demanding.”
 
The Tinseltown image

Leron Gubler, president and CEO of Hollywood’s Chamber of Commerce, said, “Such signage isn’t without controversy, but if it works anywhere, it’s in larger-than-life Hollywood. It helps perpetuate the image of Hollywood as a glitzy, glamorous area. Over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t do something normal in Hollywood. People’s expectations are different. We encourage developers to think big.”

Stroud credits HKS and Sussman/Prejza with setting the tone for W Hollywood’s vision with a compelling plan that makes signage integral to the property’s architecture. “[Sussman/Prejza’s] Miles Mazzie tightly integrated signage into the structural details,” he said. “Miles was instrumental in bringing HKS’ grand vision into reality.”

Arrow, which holds a Los Angeles structural-steel fabricator’s license, built the advertising-panel supports using 24-gauge, galvanized steel. The building’s structure dictated the use of steel. The other steel structures measure 1⁄4 in. thick, which complies with strict Los Angeles code. Stroud credited the company’s large-scale, structural-steel projects, such as building drive-in-movie screens, as one reason the W project resulted in success.

Mark Gastineau, Arrow’s account executive who helped coordinate the project, also underscored the importance of collaboration: “Until you get everybody in the room at the same time, you don’t see the big picture. Everybody narrowly focuses on their project contributions, and that’s not optimal. This way, everybody was able to determine and prioritize important factors. That’s one of the great things about collaboration – everybody recognized shared priorities.”

Set high atop the new flagship hotel, the four “W”s measure 12 x 17 ft. and 27 x 37 ft. wide; they reside 175 ft. above the sidewalk. The site also features several digitally printed, billboard panels tensioned over steel frames. They measure from 30 x 10 ft. to 80 x 40 ft., and, at their highest points, they stand 240 ft. above ground – nearly 150 ft. from the rooftop.

When working on a project of such a massive scale, working with other trades to share access, navigate traffic-lane closures and operate such tools as tower cranes, requires extensive management. Also, the job required city-certified welders and a steel fabricator’s license. The W project required two semi truck and five trailers to transport 27 loads from Arrow’s Stockton (CA) fabrication plant to Los Angeles.
 
“The W’s signs effectively measure taller than the building in some cases, and they required immediate engineering input and coordination between all offices involved,” Mazzie said. “These signs were larger than anything we had built previously. Arrow’s outdoor-advertising knowledge helped us anticipate maintenance, use and access issues.”

He continued, “This isn’t simply outdoor advertising. It’s architecturally integrated outdoor signage, graphics and advertising at a scale that carries real architectural significance.”

Gastineau reiterated an important signage aspect: “If [Starwood] didn’t have the revenue generated from those [billboards], they wouldn’t have built the project. Therefore, they became very important.”
 
Approved messages

Mazzie and his firm’s co-principal, Paul Prejza, were also instrumental in the master planning for the Hollywood Entertainment District’s signage ordinance, which governs the application of advertising to the area’s streetscape. Gastineau added, “We designed around the OAAA [Outdoor Adv. Assn. of America] lighting standards so that we were within code, but we also wanted to maximize the advertising company’s ability to sell that space effectively.”

The lighting standards dictate the minimum and maximum levels of the illumination’s brightness, influence the light’s directions and address how reflection impacts areas that surround the building.

By incorporating grand-scale brand identification and advertising into the building’s architectural design, clients gain far more legitimate exposure than what any supergraphic receives through such subversive, unlawful methods as those that recently made headlines in Los Angeles.

During the production process, the team made several alterations to the original design intent. For instance, we changed the logo from white to red, modified the ad panels from internally illuminated to floodlit, and added additional support structures.

“We emphasized the sign’s functionality. This included its operation, lighting, maintenance access and other details that are often overlooked,” Stroud said. “Because we, as sign fabricators, were brought in early, we could ask about such functional issues as maintenance and durability. The answers helped steer the team to best-practice solutions for materials and structural design.”

Given the main-ID signs’ intricate lattice work and extraordinary height, addressing long-term maintenance became a central Arrow priority. For example, the team recommended 24-gauge, galvanized steel for the panels because of issues that would arise if the metal had to sprayed in the future due to rust or corrosion.
“We were adamant that the builder provide the embeds and mounts,” Gastineau said. “We never penetrate a building. Because the building includes residential units, specific codes apply. We didn’t want to be included in a 30-year maintenance agreement that dictates apartments won’t suffer leaks or structural damage. That’s not what we do. We’re a sign company.”
 
Thinking ahead

Throughout the process, Arrow’s design team addressed signage longevity and practicality. “To access the ‘W,’ which is several stories above the rooftop pool deck, we incorporated a sliding dolly that’s hidden behind the billboard, and located the power supplies at the platform for easy access” Stroud said. “We also provided the photometrics for the various advertising panels. This ensured the floodlights hit the billboards at appropriate angles with acceptable brightness. At the base of each sign, floodlight wattage ranges from 400 to 1,000W.”

Although the signs’ subjective attractiveness and the legalities involved with implementation remain two separate issues, many building owners are becoming acutely aware of the value of planning ahead.
“Sign codes today don’t allow poorly planned or constructed rooftop signage,” Gastineau said. “They have to be architecturally relevant.”

Stroud added, “When the sign fabricator is brought in towards the end, it’s often too late to properly integrate the signage. So, clients end up spending a lot of extra money without necessarily getting a better product.”

Although the W’s signs aren’t as large as the landmark “Hollywood” letters, they atone for smaller size thanks to bright LEDs, which also require less energy to illuminate than other lightsource options.

Potential service issues also influenced the decision against using neon in favor of linear, red LED border tubing. Sussman/Prejza specified LED tubes that provide a 360° glow. Arrow fabricated the open-face channel letters with more than 600 linear ft. of GE Contour LED tubing per letter to replicate exposed neon. Arrow installed all jumps and connections behind the baffle, and located all the power supplies on the ad-panel platforms, which, in lieu of surface-mounted boxes, also helped minimize service problems because the jumps aren’t directly exposed to weather.

Thanks in large part to collaboration early and often, the team created an iconic sign package that served the needs of the often divergent interests of city planners, property owners, advertisers and the general public. The detail necessitated that the builders, designers and sign fabricators kept an open dialogue throughout the process.

“We consulted with Van Wagner to integrate plates into their hoists, which allowed optimal access to the billboards without interrupting the flow of the design,” Stroud said. “We also provided unimpeded access on all four sides of the structure to help installers ratchet down the sign faces more easily. That’s the value of a team effort.”
 
Energy concerns

Beyond the visual appeal provided by the designers, Arrow’s approach was also guided in part by “green” principles. It’s common knowledge the simple operation of many LED lights now costs less than conventional light sources. Maintenance was also a consideration, given the environmental impact of running a diesel crane truck to a job site are significant. Also, regulatory implications accompany the disposal of residual mercury in neon and fluorescent lights.

By utilizing the Contour LED tubing, Arrow systematically lit the “W”s in a simple, modular manner, which makes it more cost-effective overall. Gastineau added, “You don’t have catastrophic outages with LED. When a sign exists 180 ft. in the air, it’s difficult to get a crane there.”

The design collaboration continued through 2008, and well into the summer of 2009, when the city greenlighted construction. The W Hotel is a very well-documented, sign-installation project – thanks in part to such photo-sharing sites as Flickr and Photobucket. It also testifies to electric signs and large-format advertising being embraced by the public – and public officials – if they’re developed through proactive planning, collaboration and technical know-how.

By establishing an effective workflow at the earliest stages of project development, designers and signmakers overcame many of the traditional problems involved with larger jobs -- those burdensome projects where a frantic customer calls the sign company only after time and budget have been depleted. When they wait too long to include sign fabricators in the design/build process, clients inadvertently paint themselves into a corner where price becomes the determining factor. This leads to situations where harried contractors and clients may accept the lowest bid, only to be hit with costly change orders. Also, when a sign company is unfamiliar with project construction that occurred prior to its arrival, an ongoing liability emerges.

“You don’t half-heartedly design and fabricate projects of this scale and duration, where you’ll need a productive relationship in the three-to-four-year span from when the work begins until onsite completion,” Mazzie said.

Amid much fanfare, the W Hollywood opened on January 28. Its onsite French restaurant, the 6,000-sq.-ft. Delphine, also opened that day. A landmark nightclub, Drai’s Hollywood, also opened at the W in March. It will be a privilege to see our work identify and embellish a Los Angeles landmark for years to come.
 
John Lilly is a freelance writer and marketing director for Arrow Sign Co.