Fifth Avenue Style

CREO rejuvenates a landmark Seattle theatre with luminous signage.
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Todd Fuhs is a senior project manager for CREO Industrial Arts (Everett, WA).
In February 2008, Cathy Johnstone, the 5th Avenue Theatre’s (Seattle) director of facility operations, con-tacted us regarding a new exterior sign for the property. CREO (known as SignTech at that time) had fabricated its existing exterior signage back in the mid 1990s, and we participated in brainstorming discussions regarding a new, vertical marquee that we hoped to build when funding allowed.

She explained that a donor had expressed interest in funding a new marquee reminiscent of the vertical one that existed when the theater opened in 1926. Between February and July 2008, the theater’s management team invited CREO to preliminary discussions regarding various concepts for the new design. They wanted general guidelines regarding signage possibilities attainable with their available budget.

In July 2008, funding was secured, with the overwhelming majority derived from the donor’s contribution. That budget required proportional distribution between design and fabrication/installation. For the $300,000 allocated to the project, design, electrical work, structural testing and electric programming required $100,000; fabrication comprised the rest.
Design and fabrication decisions

The Seattle office of NBBJ, an architecture/environmental-graphics firm, designed its ideal sign based on client input and CREO’s general guidelines. Then, CREO analyzed that hypothetical sign’s cost relative to the available budget. Some sign elements were non-negotiable: size, function and materials. For other aspects, CREO specified options and corresponding costs for budget optimization. After three design revisions, the team selected a design that achieved both the desired aesthetics while respecting budgetary limits.

As NBBJ’s design intent unfolded, CREO provided material samples – painted aluminum, acrylic, screenprinted patterns, etc. – and general fabrication information to help focus design details. Once the design’s scale, color and function crystallized, CREO fabricated a full-size cabinet section (approximately 3 x 4 ft.) that included dimensional, layered materials with a few LED bulb options with differing colors, brightnesses and shapes.

The mockup also showed different animation options for the bulbs’ illumination, chasing and scintillating functions. To ensure optimal readability, we viewed the prototype in daylight and darkness.
Time to build

As fabrication began, we addressed programming the sign’s lighting. The sign required 12 different lighting regions, and the theater wanted maximum control and flexibility for illumination. The light show needed to vary for different theater events, which meant CREO had to deliver a fairly sophisticated, electrical-control assembly.

Consequently, CREO installed a subpanel that branches out all circuits and provides an astronomical timer control. The subpanel breaks the power into 12, 20A circuits. Eleven dictate the lighting scheme, and one manages the rotating “5” atop the sign.

The electronic clock controls each circuit individually – turning them on and off appropriately – per client programming. The job required five or six lighting variations. Yet, the sign only draws approximately 60A when fully engaged.
Motion and light

The 10-ft.-tall rotating “5” – essentially a custom, 3-D aluminum cabinet – looms as the sign’s crowning glory. A Dynapac Model L-350 rotator, which turns the sign at 4 rpm, powers the cabinet. The motor is indexed to stop in the same position whenever the power is turned off. Designing the structural connection and support for the Dynapac rotator presented an initial challenge, but once we’d brought the engine in house, the plan unfolded fairly easily.

Expectedly, adhering to budget proved a consistent challenge. The LED S14-style, screw-in LED that provides chaser lighting provided the most significant budgetary hurdle. These were chosen because they mimic the incandescent bulbs often used for signage back in the ’40s and ’50s, but in a much more energy-efficient manner. The 1W bulbs will consume approximately 90% less energy than traditional, 11W incandescents.

The sign required nearly 2,000 of these bulbs, so they consumed a significant budget portion. This type of LED lamp, however, is relatively new. Finding an affordable solution with adequate testing and a good performance track record proved extremely difficult. After much research and analysis, the consultant team chose a foreign product. Unfortunately, we immediately encountered a larger-than-expected failure rate. We worked with the distributor, Action Lighting (Bozeman, MT), and received another batch of lamps just in time for completion. Despite the hassle, we met our client’s needs.

Sign installation was fairly involved as well. We first designed and engineered the sign’s attachment to the building. Finding accurate structural information about this nearly 100-year-old building proved challenging. Standards for building construction, materials and techniques differed a bit in the mid 1920s.

Ultimately, the main horizontal structural members, which run between vertical columns behind the building’s stone façade, proved substantial. A 5-ft.-tall, 2-ft.-deep, concrete structural skeleton supports each floor around the building’s full perimeter. A seismic structural review, which occurred here (and at many older buildings) after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, strongly influenced our attachment design.

We core-drilled test holes through the building’s façade to verify the location of the structural beams and test the concrete’s condition. Luckily, everything proved compatible for our planned epoxy/stud anchoring system. After having determined the structure’s location in relation to the stone façade, we prepared three baseplates. We set each with 36, 1-in.-diameter, threaded rods, which we anchored with epoxy into the concrete building structure with Simpson Set XP epoxy. We welded the sign’s three, steel-tube supports to the plates.

We built and installed the sign in three pieces. We constructed the sign’s body in two segments, and the rotating numeral comprised the third. Because the theater resides on one of downtown Seattle’s busiest streets, all installation phases occurred at night and were coordinated around a busy performance schedule.

Also, the installation happened near the holidays, so lane closures during the busy shopping season limited our working window. Fortunately, we completed the bulk of the install before Thanksgiving, but we performed some final minor assembly and touchups after the street-use restrictions had begun. For those tasks, we hired a roped-access crew to rappel from the roof and complete this work that otherwise would’ve waited until after Christmas.
The result

The 60-ft.-tall sign’s 0.125-in. aluminum shell, built entirely around a 2-in., aluminum-square-tube frame, was finished with Matthews acrylic-polyurethane paint. CREO’s Gerber Sabre 408 router handled most of the flat-cut work. We finished the job’s more intricate cutting on a waterjet table.

The multiple lit regions include perimeter cove lighting that illuminates an ornately patterned face; halo-lit letters that spell “Avenue;” and separate detail cabinets at the top and bottom with push-through, acrylic copy. We illuminated all components with more than 2,000 Allanson Storm Tight LED modules in white and red. The LEDs are powered by 11 Sloan LED and 27 Advance Corp. 60W transformers.
We also populated the scintillating exposed lamps in the letters, and the two rows of perimeter chase lights, with more than 1,900, low-voltage, S-14, exposed-LED lamps. Design Specialties built the scintillation and chase units.

The rotating “5” features two rows of Sloan FlexiBRITE red, LED rope lighting that simulates neon border tubes, as well as LED lamps embed-ded inside the numeral’s outline.

Our work yielded a luminous, vertical marquee that attracts even greater attention to this historic theater.
Equipment and Materials

Hardware: Electronic scintillation and chase controls, from Design Specialty Inc. (Colorado Springs, CO), (719) 488-3036 or; L-350 six-ring rotator, from Dynapac Rotating Co. (Salt Lake City), (800) 657-2650 or; 16-circuit, electronic microprocessor time switch, from Intermatic Inc. (Spring Grove, IL), (815) 675-2321 or; Set XP epoxy, from Simpson (Pleasanton, CA), (800) 999-5099 or

Lighting: Red and white, weatherproof Storm Tight LED modules, from Allanson (Toronto), (800) 668-9162 or; FlexiBrite red LED tube lighting, from SloanLED (Ventura, CA), (888) 747-4533 or; S14 LED bulbs, from Action Lighting (Bozeman, MT), (800) 248-0076 or; 12V, 60W LED drivers, from SloanLED and Philips Advance (Rosemont, IL), (847) 390-5000 or

Paint: Acrylic-polyurethane paint, from Matthews Inc. (Delaware, OH), (800) 323-6593 or

Router: Gerber Sabre 408 CNC router, from Gerber Scientific Products (South Windsor, CT), (800) 222-7446 or
More About CREO Industrial Arts

Based in Everett, WA, near the shores of Puget Sound, CREO Industrial Arts (formerly SignTech) provides custom, architectural-signage fabrication, as well as such specialty items as street furniture, lighting, architectural embellishments and public art. CREO partners with environmental-graphic-design professionals to provide documentation, project management, fabrication and installation services.

The company has developed several unique, sophisticated, environmental-graphics projects for such upscale-retail centers and hotels as San Jose’s (CA) Santana Row, Vail, CO’s the Arrabelle at Vail Square, Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and Cle Elum, WA’s Suncadia Resort. For more information, visit