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Portland's Last Big Neon

Posted on 08 June 2016

In the old days Portland was peppered with huge neon signs. Most American cities were as it was a sign of prosperity and modernity in the 30s and 40s. There were thousands of neon benders, many with unique skills and styles. Portland had a number of skilled neon sign makers though very few examples of their work still exist today. We have lost nearly all of the few survivors in the last couple years, the Wentworth Chevytown sign with its 10 foot tall red neon letters being the most significant. Wentworth tried very hard to save the sign but it was condemned by the city as the sign was near power lines and was deemed unsafe to service. 

The last of the grand scale neon signs is the "Portland Oregon" sign at the west end of the Burnside Bridge. Many of Portland's newcomers don't realize that not long ago the sign was an advertisement and has gone through a number of different iterations in its life. 

The Portland sign was first lit in 1940, built by Ramsay Signs to advertise White Satin Sugar. Originally the sign was static. It featured an outline of the State of Oregon with the sugar company's name spelled out within it. In 1950, the sign was animated to appear as though the state was filling with sugar. In 1957, White Satin gave up the sign, at which point White Stag Sportswear took it over. White Stag had occupied the building that the sign was on since the 1920s. The white neon stag was added at this time and the words were changed to "White Stag Sportswear." The 1959 holiday season was the first time a red nose was aded to the stag, a tradition that has been carried on every year since. 

White Stag left the building in 1973 but continued to pay Ramsay Signs to keep it lit. By 1977, the sign had become a city icon and was placed on the cities list of historic landmarks. In 1989, White Stag had left the state entirely and quit paying the sign's bills resulting in the sign going dark. After a few months Norcrest China Company, the new occupants of the building, began paying the $200-a-month electricity bill while Ramsay Signs footed the bill for maintenance until the mid 90s. 

Bill Nato, owner of Norcrest China, died in 1996. His son Bob took over and got in a spat with Ramsay Signs over who was to pay the maintenance costs on the sign, with threats of removal being made. Mayor Vera Katz got involved and helped the feuding parties come together. Naito would continue to pay the bills and for upkeep on the sign but it would be changed to advertise one of his businesses, Made In Oregon. The red script below the main sign was changed from "sportswear" to "Old Town." 

In 2004, Nato shut down Norcrest and sold off the building. Venerable Properties purchased the building, restoring it for mixed use. The primary Tennant of the building would be The University of Oregon. Ramsay and the university submitted an application to the city to change the sign to read University of Oregon. Citizens freaked out at having a tacky sign for an out of town university as the main feature of its skyline. The university tried to compromise by suggesting they install their logo, a large yellow and green O, on the water tower next to the sign. Luckily this was denied resulting in the university giving up its lease on the sign. This did however leave the future of the sign unknown.

In 2009, Ramsay shut the sign off and suggested that they might take the sign down. In 2010, Ramsay donated the sign to the city. The city also agreed to pay Ramsay $2000 a moth to maintain and keep the sign lit. Art DeMuro, president of Venerable Properties, personally paid Ramsay $200,000 to change the wording to Portland, Oregon. The sign is now cemented into peoples vision of the city and has become a beloved icon. Hopefully its future is safe in the hands of the City of Portland.

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