Western Neon Reinvigorates Rainier Brewery Building with New Logo Sign

Sign celebrates brewery's 100-plus-year history

The Rainier Brewery’s famous “R” sign wasn’t always stationary. Old photos, of where the brewery stood proudly on Seattle’s South Side and bottled beer from 1884 to 1999, show that it originally featured a rotating sign when first installed in the 1950s. Craig Coombs, the son of Edwin S. Coombs Jr., a former Rainier president, said the R’s motion ceased due to a Seattle sign-code change in the late ’60s or early ’70s.
Coombs said, “My recollection is that my father came home from work one day and was a little upset. There was a new change in the Seattle sign code, and the ‘R’ could no longer rotate 360º or be of the size that was then on the brewery. The solution was to make the sign stationary and re-design the proportions of the ‘R’.”
With slight adjustments, the subsequent Rainier “R” continued to welcome visitors into downtown Seattle until 2000. The year before, Rainier had been sold to Pabst Brewing Co., which shuttered the brewery (Rainier is now brewed in California through a contract arrangement with Pabst). At that point, the sign was taken down, and the brewery transitioned into a roasting facility for Tully’s Coffee.
Making room for Tully’s “T”
In 2000, Western Neon was contacted by Tully’s Coffee to design its new “T” logo that would sit atop the former brewery. The once-iconic Rainier “R” was dethroned and sent to its new home at the Museum of History and Innovation (MOHAI), located in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
However, dismantling the old sign crushed its legs. They weren’t designed to hold the full weight on their own. Western Neon needed to refurbish the sign before it went on display.
Once the sign arrived at the shop, we noticed it didn’t just have a crushed leg; it also featured several bullet holes. Briefly in the ’80s, many Seattleites shot at the sign as a favorite pastime. During the refurbishment, the original “R” was given a new paint coat, rewired and modified to be self-supporting. Now it continues to welcome new visitors to Seattle at its permanent home in the MOHAI gallery.
“Restore the R” campaign
Pabst, which still owns the Rainer Beer brand, commissioned Western Neon to reconstruct the Rainier “R” as part of its “Restore the R” campaign and install it atop the building, which is still home to Tully’s Coffee, and now also houses Emerald City Beer Co. and various business and artists’ lofts.
No records survive of the original “R” sign’s design from the 1950s. So, our design department recreated plans based on photographs and the refurbishment documents from our repairs of the original sign.
The hardest part in the design process involved figuring out how the sign would be attached. Fortunately, we could replicate the original Tully’s “T” base we created in 2000. It contains a tripod base, with a 13-in.-diameter, steel pipe as a support structure. We attached the sign to a smaller steel pole on top of the base, which measures 6 in. in diameter with a 3/8-in. wall thickness.
To attach the double-sided “R”, we MIG-welded the pipe to the steel structure. We also increased the sign’s integral wiring and transformers required to power the 470 LED lightbulbs.
Building the steel giant
We changed the original design of the “R” from steel to aluminum, which made the structure approx-
imately 1,000 lbs. lighter and more rust-resistant. Fabricating with aluminum also allowed us to create a better finish. We cut the aluminum from a pattern, and then bent it by hand with an 8-ft.-long press brake. The project required two months.
We initially created each side of the “R” in five pieces. We built the sidewall pieces from 0.125-in.-thick aluminum, and attached them together with a highly aggressive acrylic glue. Bonding them chemically, rather than mechanically, allowed us to create a cleaner finish without rivets or screws. After fabrication was completed, we primed and painted the “R” with two coats of Matthews “hotrod red” acrylic-polyurethane paint.
Once we’d completed the intricate metalwork, we started assembling the historic icon. Each side required 235 lightbulbs, which involved more than 16 hours of wiring. Each housing unit required two wires that had to be run through manually.
We incorporated CAO Lighting’s E26 LED lightbulbs, which allow the sign to shine more brightly than the original Rainier “R”. The LED bulbs require only 2-3W of power to operate – much less than traditional, 11W incandescents. The energy-efficient sign will consume approximately 73% less energy than a similar, incandescent-lit sign, and Pabst Brewing Co. will save substantial money on its operation.
Raising the “R”oof
From start to finish, the job required more than 500 hours of labor, and Pabst required it to be done secretly. It wanted the new sign to be a spontaneous experience for the city when completed. During the year-long build-up, Pabst planned a huge event around its unveiling. Pabst knew Rainier was a big brand in Seattle, but it didn’t realize how much the sign meant to the city.
Before the install, Western Neon hatched an idea to bring the “R” to the people of Seattle: a “pub crawl.” With the help of Pabst’s marketing team, we strapped the “R” on the back of a flatbed truck and drove it around the Emerald City. It stopped at pubs in Georgetown and Freemont before arriving in Capital Hill. The turnout was amazing; people flocked to take their pictures with the “R”; someone even licked it!
On install day, Pabst’s “Raising the R” party attracted approximately 3,000 people from throughout Seattle; some even rode a bus in from Portland.
Media coverage built hype about the event for weeks. The installation culminated during a big countdown to the moment the “R” would finally reclaim its rightful spot atop the Rainier Brewery Building. Once Western Crane lifted the “R” to its lofty perch, the honor then fell to me to flip the switch. I was under immense pressure for the sign to light up perfectly; when the time came, the “R” proudly regained its spot as the original beacon in Seattle’s night sky.
In honor of the big day, 235 miniature, commemorative Rainier “R” neon signs were made. If you want to treasure this major part of Seattle history, you can purchase a sign at http://westernneon.com/neon-r-limited-edition/
Both events showcased what the Rainier “R” meant to the city, and opened Pabst executives’ eyes to how big a brand Rainier is in this region. The main takeaway for Western Neon, and other sign companies, is our unique position to help businesses optimize their brands’ strengths.
Hotrod-red, acrylic-polyurethane paint, from Matthews Paint (Delaware, OH), a division of PPG Industries, (800) 623-6593 or www.signpaint.com
Lighting: Neon transformers, from Allanson (Toronto), (800) 668-9162 or www.allanson.com; 15mm, clear-red neon tubing, from EGL (Berkeley Heights, NJ), (908) 508-1111 or www.egl-lighting.com;
470, red LED lightbulbs, from CAO Lighting (West Jordan, UT), (801) 256-9282 or www.caolighting.com
Tools: Lincoln 254 arcwelder, from Lincoln Electric (Cleveland), (888) 935-3876 or www.lincolnelectric.com; miter saw and grinder, from DeWalt Tools Inc. (Towson, MD), (410) 716-3900 or www.dewalt.com; Craftsman 10-in. table saw, available at Sears retail stores; Snap-On Tools orbital sander, available in home-improvement or hardware stores

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