Scavenger Hunt Celebrates San Francisco’s Notorious Neon

Neon marks a shop at 445 Sutter Street. Photo by Dave Weinstein

It’s not often that the snobs of New York concede that provincial places like San Francisco best the Big Apple in anything. But the folks behind New York Neon Blog have a confession to make.

“San Francisco has an enviable concentration of fine vintage neon that most other towns (especially NYC) can only dream of.”

This past Saturday evening, architectural historians Shayne Watson and Katherine Petrin and photographer Jeremy Brooks led the Electrifying Scavenger Hunt: Union Square.

It was the first scavenger hunt ever sponsored by SF Heritage, a group better known for its fabulous Victorian Haas-Lilienthal house. But Heritage has been making forays into popular culture, including the study and promotion of “legacy bars and restaurants” throughout San Francisco.

The hunt started with Brooks, master photographer of neon, showing others how to get good shots of these flashing, chemical lights. A map was distributed that included clues, and folks in teams set off on their quest.

The Starlite Room sign remains a landmark. Photo by Jeremy Brooks

Some of the targeted signs glow in glory but many have been dark for years. Some are half hidden. Fans want to restore as many as they can.

“A lot of these signs really show a high level of craftsmanship and relate to the range of architectural styles and movements we see in San Francisco -- Art Deco, Moderne, Googie,” says Laura Dominguez, Heritage's communications and programs manager.

“San Francisco is a small city made up of dozens of historic commercial corridors, and somehow a lot of our historic neon is intact -- even in places where the businesses have changed,” Watson says. “Marquard’s Cigar Store in Union Square is a good example.  In every neighborhood in the city, there's at least one great old neon sign.”

“Historic buildings and their neon signs are physical links to the past that help us understand and tell the story of a landscape. No matter where you are in this country—rural or urban areas -- you know you’re in the historic part of town when you see vintage neon. Buildings can be altered and updated to the point that they are unrecognizable as historic, while neon signs -- even if they lose their neon and have a little patina -- are time capsules.

“Chinatown is a great example. Walking down Grant, the historic signs give you a sense of how the landscape looked in the middle of the last century when we used terms like ‘Chop Suey.’ ”

“There's something very romantic about a neon sign glowing in the fog,” she says.  “It's unparalleled.”

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