The Gleaming Tower
In the summer of 1937, Oklahoma City was buzzing with talk of the opening of the Tower Theater on 23rd and Walker St. downtown. W. Scott Dunne, a Dallas architect, devised the building, and Super Sleuth, which starred Jack Oakie and Anne Sothern, was its first feature. Although it wasn’t the city’s first movie house, it was celebrated for its unique architecture, lighting and then-novel air conditioning, which was trumped in the Daily Oklahoman as “scientific refrigeration”.
For more than two decades, the Tower flourished. However, as population shifted to the suburbs, it lost many customers. During the early 1960s, the Cooper Foundation, which owned the Tower, shut it down. Two ownership groups subsequently operated the theater – including a successful renovation after a January 1967 fire -- but the Tower’s popularity gradually declined, and its stint as a first-run movie house ended during the mid-1980s.
Eventually, local citizens began working to preserve the theatre. Its iconic sign -- a diagonal blade sign with neon-bordered, 3-D, closed-face, neon-lit, porcelain cans that spell out “Tower” and descend into the marquee – had fallen into disrepair. One side of the marquee was severely crumpled, and served as a compelling reminder of the once-proud property’s decline.
In 2009, owner Marty Dillon and advisor Greg Banta spearheaded renovations on the property. They planned to repurpose the property as a mixed-use facility with office, retail and restaurant space, but they wanted the Tower sign and its legacy to serve as a testament to the property’s history.
Setting the stage
Dillon initially contacted me about restoring its signage. Because 23rd St. had been widened, the marquee’s front had become exposed to tall trucks and had been damaged. Also, parking spots had recently been created in front of the marquee.
At the time, he’d just purchased the building. I’d twice before bid on making repairs to the sign. With each visit, the site looked worse. The front was completely destroyed, and the side pieces were barely recognizable. The sign had also become home to many winged residents. Ultimately, Marty accepted my bid, which included restoration of the exterior, and repair and restoration of neon and other lighting.
Because the theater is located on Route 66, Marty submitted an application to the Route 66 Corridor Preservations Program for a restoration grant, a cost-share proposal that has previously helped restore other signs.
The National Parks Service, which administers the Route 66 program, accepted the application, contingent on the restoration of sign boxes, neon tubing, incandescent lighting, marquee and brick supports to their historic color and appearance.
Before we could begin work, Marty received approval from the city for our shop to occupy a parking space in front of the Tower throughout the project’s duration. City workers subsequently extended the sidewalk and curb in front of the theater to prevent trucks from wrecking our work.
To preserve the sign’s grandfathered status, we could only remove part of the sign. Its core had to remain intact. Halfway through the project, city officials contacted me about permits. After a meeting, we decided the Tower sign wouldn’t require one. We had to demonstrate the rebuilt segment represented a small portion compared to the sign’s overall size.
First, we developed a photographic scope of the work, which highlighted the damaged area and distinguished the work Superior would do from what Jacobs Contracting, which rebuilt the Tower’s exterior wall, would do. We used CorelDraw 10 to devise the rendering, as well as numerous sign-restoration components. Superior and Jacobs working on the project for several months over a carefully managed schedule to ensure both crews weren’t onsite at the same time.
The blade sign’s porcelain components required rust-stain removal, as well as priming and touch-ups. The upper section remained in relatively good shape, but the lower section had been destroyed by the truck’s impact.
To restore the rusted areas, Superior employees Robert Kazee and Basile Koliopus used wire-brush wheels to remove rusted areas. After having removed the spots, they primed and coated the areas with Matthews acrylic-polyurethane paint. After we’d prepped all the sections, Eric Morrison matched the cleaned porcelain and applied the polyurethane finish to the new piece.
When the truck hit the marquee, it knocked the upper internal frame out of plumb. The entire bottom had to be removed. We replaced numerous sections of sheetmetal filler with new aluminum, which we finished with acrylic-polyurethane paint. Other work crews, which had been subcontracted, helped with demolition. Once we’d dismantled the lower section, we cleaned up the site so we could focus on straightening the main frame in the upper section. We pulled the top back into plumb and fastened it back to the main marquee frame with temporary steel angle.
Over seven decades, the internal wiring had decomposed badly. It had been patched and repaired over the years, but needed a major overhaul. We stripped all wiring and transformers from the sign and installed 28 new transformers. As we removed the neon from the sign, we patterned and tested the tubing. It if was operational, we set it aside for re-installation. We searched unsuccessfully for the sign’s original, neon animator, and, because we couldn’t prove that the sign had been animated, it was forbidden per city code.
Because yellow glass is no longer available, we made a close match with veep-green tubing. As we installed the glass within the sign, we discovered much of the old glass we’d tried to save was badly stained and looked too dark alongside new tubing. We decided to replace 90% of the tubing, and ultimately installed 1,100 linear ft. of new neon.
Early in the project, we discussed using LEDs. However, our main objection was to restore a longstanding, neon icon to its former glory. Therefore, we decided that LED-lit tubing designed to replicate exposed neon wouldn’t suffice.
Something old, something new
To retrofit the new marquee, we had to remove several bricks below. Vintage theater marquees were built into the building, with integral steel structures fastened within the building’s construction. Some time during the theater’s history, the original, cast-stone façade had been overlaid with brick veneer. This addition covered part of the marquee, and it had to be removed to expose exterior-sign sections. We fabricated two new sections and removed both sides of the marquee.
The sign’s primary frame was structurally sound enough to preserve. We dislodged the primary sign components from the original support structure and realigned them with the marquee’s center. Using original sign photos, Superior rebuilt the sign’s base where it connects to the marquee.
Once we’d completed the lower-section demo, we brought all pieces back to the shop. Tony Summers and James Young transferred all measurements into CorelDraw. Using the measurements, Young and Tommy Tinoco recreated the entire bottom section. They exported the files to EnRoute 4 3-D sign software and cut all pieces on the shop’s MultiCam 3000 CNC router. We cut all new sections from 0.080-in.-thick aluminum, MIG-welded them to form the 3-D sections, and fabricated the “Tower” letters from 3/16-in.-thick, flat, white acrylic.
The marquee’s lighting required a redo as well. The fluorescent fixtures above and below the marquee were badly corroded and required removal. We power-washed the marquee’s underside, which had become discolored. Superior installed new, fluorescent lighting. The original faces were plate glass, and the letters porcelain as well. We retrofitted the new sign with 8-in.-tall, Wagner Zip-Change letters. For a final, finishing touch, we added stainless strips and polished-stainless screws.
We haven’t yet replaced the marquee’s original underside. The original marquee ceiling actually stretched into the building; the building’s current exterior doors were 15 ft. inside the building. The bottom of the marquee extended into that area and connected to what was the original ticket booth. Our next phase of the project includes rebuilding the neon around the ticket booth and connecting it to the marquee.
We assembled all sign sections using an 85-ft. Skyhook HD bucket truck and a 55-ft.-reach Terex service bucket truck. Once we’d installed the pieces, Jacobs returned and built a new roof for the marquee, finished the building exterior and removed the brick that overlaid the original cast stone.
To bid on restoring such vintage signs is tricky. Many require a complete rebuild, and the cost can be prohibitive. We’ve restored other signs, such as one of the original neon signs for Sonic drive-ins, but this was a much larger scale. Fortunately, the Route 66 grant made it feasible.
We didn’t have tight deadlines, so we were able to complete the project carefully over four months. Dillon arranged a public sign lighting, which approximately 100 people attended. It was very gratifying to see the public applaud our hard work.
After the project’s completion, Troy Matchen, a veteran tubebender and Superior Neon employee, passed away at age 72. The Tower’s sign restoration ended up one of his last projects. He was well known locally and will be fondly remembered.
Equipment and Materials
Installation: Skyhook HD 85-ft.-reach bucket truck, from Manitex (Georgetown, TX), (877) 314-3390 or www.manitex.com; 55-ft.-reach bucket truck, from Terex (Westport, CT), (203) 222-7170 or www.terex.com
Paint: Polyurethane primer and paint, from Matthews Paint Co. (Delaware, OH), (800) 323-6593 or www.matthewspaint.com
Letters: Eight-in.-tall marquee letters, from Wagner Zip-Change (Melrose Park, IL), (708) 681-4000 or www.wagnerzip.com
Lighting: GTO wiring, from Transco (West Columbia, SC), (800) 869-6366 or www.transco-usa.com; luminous, veep-green tubing, from EGL (Berkeley Heights, NJ), (908) 508-1111 or www.egl-neon.com; magnetic, 9,030 to 15,030V 120VAC transformers, from France (Fairview, TN), (800) 753-2753 or www.franceformer.com
Router: MultiCam 3000 CNC router, from MultiCam (Dallas), (972) 929-4070 or www.multicam.com
Software: CorelDraw 10, from Corel Corp. (Ottawa, ON, Canada), www.corel.com; EnRoute 4 3-D sign software, from SA Intl. (Salt Lake City, UT), (800) 229-9066 or www.saintl.biz
Misc.: Aluminum sheet (0.080 in. thick) and wire-brush wheels, available at contractors’ and building-supply stores.
More About Jim and Superior Sign
Jim Gleason started his sign-industry career in 1978 at age 12 sweeping the floor at his father Gary’s shop, Gleason and Son Signs (Salinas, KS). After having worked for his father for 21 years, he moved to Oklahoma City and began working at Superior Neon Sign.
He’s also served on the board of the Oklahoma Sign Assn. (OSA) for seven years, where he’s currently President. The OSA has launched an “Adopt a Sign” program to help fund the restoration of historic landmark signs – often in conjunction with the Route 66 program.
Tom Hopkins founded Superior Neon Signs in 1935. The company moved into a new facility in 1947, where is remains today – complete with its original, porcelain-enamel, neon sign. The company has restored several signs for the American Sign Museum.
Gleason said, “Every now and then, someone will bring in a sign for restoration that Superior originally built. Our general manager, Dan, has been in that position since 1978. We recently had a service technician who worked here more than 50 years. We’re proud of our deep experience and low turnover.”