Let There Be Light
Brad Badelt reports on neon’s second coming in Vancouver.
TWO BLUE FLAMES, each reaching more than one thousand degrees Celsius, converge on a small glass tube. It takes a few seconds before the pinky-width cylinder bursts into an orange flare, like a marshmallow about to char. That’s when Andrew Hibbs begins to work his magic. He spins the glass with his bare fingertips, waving it across the flames to distribute the heat. Then, using a rubber hose that hangs between his lips like a reed, he breathes life into the glass. In one smooth gesture, he curls it up into an arc: the first bend for a neon sign that will eventually read “It was all a dream.” The piece is one of the hundred or so that Hibbs will create this year, each selling for upwards of a thousand dollars.
We are in a nondescript warehouse, tucked away in the scrubby, industrial outskirts of Vancouver. “It’s a bit like a science lab in here, isn’t it?” Hibbs says, offering me a tour. His workbench is covered with sheets of brown tracing paper and archaic-looking drawing tools, which he uses to hand-render patterns for new signs. At the far end is the pumper table: a series of black knobs and dials mounted to a wooden counter with the tops of two neon-filled canisters poking through. In the middle of the shop floor stand three chest-high torches, known as crossfires, where glass tubes are heated and shaped into the sinuous curves neon lights are famous for.
At twenty-nine, Hibbs is an anomaly—a young master of a dying art. He started learning the trade by his father’s side at thirteen, helping out in their backyard workshop. His father showed him how to pump neon into the glass tubes and repair broken signs before slowly teaching his young apprentice the craft of bending. “It takes about five years to get decent at it,” Hibbs explains. He then holds out his hands: scars caused by shattered glass run up and down his fingers. Their tips are polished smooth from repeated burns.
Over the past few years, Hibbs has been leading a neon revival of sorts in Vancouver. His work has been featured by the Juno Awards as well as a host of local media, including Breakfast Television and the Georgia Straight. In 2014, he turned heads with a towering three-storey advertisement for a high-rise beside the Granville Street Bridge that read “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a German phrase meaning “complete work of art”). “It was all a dream,” like much of his work, will be sold to an upscale private buyer.
Hibbs explains that he is one of the few neon sign-makers left in Vancouver. Most, like his father, have reached or are nearing retirement. It’s a far cry from the art’s 1950s glory days, when the city had some 19,000 glowing signs rising above its streets—roughly one for every eighteen residents. At its height, Vancouver reportedly had more neon per capita than New York, Tokyo and even Las Vegas. During that period, dozens of local sign-makers worked overtime to keep up with the demand for bigger, brighter and ever more eye-catching displays. Those days have long since ended.
In recent years, LEDs—cheaper, less finicky and more efficient—have mostly replaced neon in commercial applications. But that’s only part of the story. Neon’s real decline happened decades earlier, when Vancouver’s carnival of lights became the focal point of a bitter aesthetic war that would forever change the city.
NEON IS A RELATIVELY RECENT DISCOVERY, as far as chemistry goes. It was first identified in 1898 by William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers, a pair of British scientists who later wrote that its “blaze of crimson light ... was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” Though clearly smitten, the two saw little use for the gas. It took an eccentric French chemist named Georges Claude to see its true potential. Claude, who produced neon as a by-product of distilling oxygen, began tinkering with the gas, pressurizing it and applying electrical charges. In 1910, he unveiled his first neon light at a Parisian expo: two orange-red tubes stretching forty feet long, like laser beams from one of Jules Verne’s futuristic novels.
Claude sold his first commercial sign to the Palais Coiffeur barbershop in Paris two years later. Next came a rooftop sign with white metre-high letters advertising Cinzano, an Italian vermouth. It wasn’t long before neon was popping up on rooftops all around the French capital. Compared to displays made from incandescent light bulbs—the standard at the time—neon was far superior: its brilliant colours could be seen for miles, and its glass tubes could be molded into letters and shapes with relative precision. Claude was granted a patent for neon signage in 1915 and set up franchises across Europe and North America, making him a sizeable fortune. (His empire came to an abrupt end during the Second World War when he was publicly disgraced as a Nazi collaborator and sentenced to life in prison.)
Vancouver, then an isolated port town far removed from Paris’ glow, embraced neon in its infancy. “Legend has it that [the] first sign was actually made in Seattle and the glass tubes were wrapped and put in the back seat of a car and driven up,” says John Atkin, a Vancouver civic historian. The buyer of that first sign in 1928 was a local car dealership called Marmon Auto Sales. The car business went bankrupt soon after, but not before securing one of Georges Claude’s exclusive franchise licenses. As the dealership failed, its side business—dubbed Neon Products—began to blossom. In just over two decades, it would reach its peak as one of the largest neon sign-makers in the world.
By 1940, neon had transformed Vancouver: the city’s dark, wet winters offered a perfect backdrop for its warm, multicoloured glow. Photographs from that era show a metropolis that may look foreign to current residents: gritty streetscapes cluttered with signs and bulletin boards, sidewalks hectic with shoppers and vendors. Granville Street, the heart of the entertainment district, became known as the “Great White Way” for its landing strip of lights that could be seen from blocks away. “As a small city, we were an incredibly urban, vibrant place,” says Atkin. “You would bump into Hollywood stars and all manner of well-known musicians and nightclub performers. The signs encapsulated the exuberance and optimism of that period.”
In the post-war years, Vancouver was home to at least a dozen neon shops, each competing to create ever more outlandish displays: a giant tugboat rocked through waves over the Gulf of Georgia Towing office; the bellows of an antique camera accordioned in and out above a downtown photography shop; a pot-bellied Buddha perched atop the popular Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret nightclub. In those days, neon must have seemed as much a part of the city as the rain itself.
BY THE EARLY 1960s, anyone driving westbound on Hastings Street would have seen little evidence of that seemingly irrepressible city. Storefronts that previously housed clothiers and jewelry shops were boarded up. Shuttered theatres littered the strip. Streetcars, once the lifeblood of the neighbourhood, were no longer running. Even the storied retailer Eaton’s, the anchor of Hastings’ business district, was struggling—in just a few years, it would move across town to a new mall. One of the only things that hadn’t disappeared were the neon signs.
That decade was a tumultuous time in Vancouver. Middle-class families were moving to the suburbs and other parts of the city, seeking backyards and carports. Plans were being drawn up for an elevated freeway that would slice through the downtown to better serve these new commuters. Neighbourhoods such as the Downtown Eastside became downtrodden. “The life was sucked out of the downtown area,” says Viviane Gosselin, curator of contemporary culture with the Museum of Vancouver. What was left were businesses in seedier areas, she says, and these impoverished pockets soon became associated with neon’s buzz.
Neon, once seen as glamorous, became the emblem of urban decay and was increasingly seen as a beacon for vice. “In a movie, if you wanted to show someone who was down on their luck, you put then in a hotel room, on their bed, in their undershirt, with a flashing red neon sign outside the window,” says Atkin.
Those bright lights had been a way for the young city to assert its prosperity and sophistication. But as Vancouver’s regional population swelled to more than one million residents, its anxieties shifted. Many Vancouverites were less worried about being seen as a big urban centre and more concerned that its man-made excess distracted from the natural beauty of its mountains, ocean and beaches. In 1966, Vancouver Sun writer Tom Ardies opined that the proliferating neon signs were a hideous monstrosity. “They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous,” he wrote. “They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and—this is the final indignity—blocking our views to some of the greatest scenery in the world.”
Starting in 1958, the Community Arts Council, a local citizens’ group, argued to city council that neon was “visual squalor.” What’s more, they alleged, the signs were hurting Vancouver’s reputation. In a 1962 speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, one supporter argued, “[We will regret the day] when visual squalor downtown causes sensitive people by the thousands to shop in the suburbs.” There’s no evidence of public outcry in favour of neon. The only pushback seems to have come from the sign industry itself, which managed to delay regulations by arguing that “further study” was needed.
Modest restrictions came in 1966, but it wasn’t until 1974 when politicians—desperate to clean up the ailing downtown—passed the city’s first comprehensive sign bylaw. It restricted how far signs could stick out from buildings, including ones that went above the roofline. Signs with moving parts and ones that flashed were also constrained. The bylaw grandfathered in existing displays, but it began a war of attrition. As businesses closed or swapped their flickering lights for more modest versions, Vancouver’s storied neon signs slowly disappeared from view.
Within a decade or so of the regulations passing, only a few dozen neon signs were left in the city, and many workers were out of a job. By the 1990s, the once booming commercial neon industry—which had stood strong and almost unchanged over the preceding century—was turning into a boutique craft. One by one, the lights were going out.
FOR A SMALL ADMISSION FEE, visitors to the Museum of Vancouver can still see some of the city’s most famous retro neon. Twenty-four signs—some of which were literally saved from a scrap yard—were installed as part of a temporary exhibit that proved so popular it’s now up indefinitely. For many young or transplanted Vancouverites, the exhibition provides a glimpse into a city that they will never know. “I think [its popularity reflects] a longing for that period, maybe as a time of excitement and optimism,” curator Gosselin explains. Like the street photography of Fred Herzog and Walter Griba, the exhibit shows a city that was bustling, vibrant and just a bit messy—more New York City than polished, modern-day Vancouver.
While that era of neon is over, the city is starting to rethink its prohibition of the art. Vancouver spent millions of dollars in 2009 to bring back the glory of Granville Street. Streetlights resembling giant lightsabers were installed along both sidewalks and, thanks to changes to the city’s signage bylaw in the mid-2000s, businesses have been encouraged to bring neon back. (Even McDonald’s got in the spirit, installing a glowing box of French fries that light up one-by-one.) Historian John Atkin, who lamented that the loss of neon darkened the downtown, welcomes the return of brightly peacocked signage. “It’s coming close to what it had in the 1950s,” he says.
Andrew Hibbs has benefitted from the city’s renewed interest as well. He recently worked with his father to restore one of Granville Street’s most iconic signs: the Vogue Theatre’s sixty-foot marquis topped by the Roman goddess Diana. And in 2014, he installed what might be his most well-known piece to date: “Time is precious.” Hanging two stories up the side of a former meat warehouse in Gastown—a neighbourhood that was once home to a plethora of neon signs—the snow-white text seems to float weightlessly above the street.
But there are growing pains as the industry readjusts to the increasing demand: Hibbs’ supplier of mercury (which is mixed with argon gas to produce certain shades of blue) just closed, forcing him to find a new source before his last jar—less than a year’s worth—runs out. “I’ve spent days just trying to find companies [carrying] the stuff I’m looking for,” he says. But Hibbs doesn’t seem too fussed by it all. In a city now known for its glass architecture and uptight cleanliness, he’s proud to be bringing back some of Vancouver’s gritty aesthetic.
BEFORE I LEAVE HIS WORKSHOP, Hibbs brings me over to the table with all the knobs and dials, where neon, along with argon and mercury, are pumped into his signs. He plugs electrodes into a glass tube that he’s bent into tight curlicues, and places thin pieces of mica around it to prevent the 15,000-volt charge from short-circuiting. Then he turns on the gas.
A moment later, the tube glows orange-red, like a stove element left on high. Looking into the warm light, it is easy to see what the future itself must have looked like to Georges Claude way back in 1910.