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Illumination: Edmonton’s Neon Sign Museum

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Photos courtesy City of Edmonton

By Peter Saunders
The Neon Sign Museum opened in Edmonton on February 21, 2014. The first of its kind anywhere in Canada, this open-air museum showcases a collection of historic neon signs along the façade of a Telus utility building on the southwest corner of 104 Street and 104 Avenue.

The debut of the museum on that cold winter day last year represented the culmination of many years of planning and many volunteers’ efforts. The city’s own heritage planners collected 12 iconic signs, eight of which were then restored and installed on the side of the building. The Alberta Sign Association (ASA) organized the restoration work, with a number of its member companies offering their time to the project.

Humble beginnings
The project has its roots in 2002, when Edmonton heritage planner David Holdsworth saw an old Canadian Furniture sign being removed and wondered where it was headed.

“When he found out it was bound for the dumpster, he saved it,” explains Tim Pedrick, president of ASA and Hi Signs/The Fath Group. “He put it away and began to collect others as he became aware of them.”

As Holdsworth’s collection grew in Edmonton’s artifacts centre with no end in sight, archivists felt the pinch and suggested the need for 
a new home for the signs. So, in 2008, the idea for the museum was born. Holdsworth approached ASA board member Tom McGeachy—then vice-president (VP)—to see if any local professionals would be willing to repair the signs for free.

“He didn’t have a specific location lined up for the museum yet, but he knew he wanted it outside,” says Pedrick. “We at ASA got involved in 2009 and began discussing ideas.”

Meanwhile, Linda Wedman of the Edmonton Business Council for the Visual Arts (EBCVA) joined the effort by helping raise funds and searching for a suitable location. While she did not work directly for the municipal government, 
she was able to convince the city 
to pay for a $180,000 ‘frame’ grid, specially engineered to support the signs, which would eventually be incorporated into the building under an agreement with Telus. The frame would also be somewhat ‘futureproof,’ as it could hold up to 30 signs in total.

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The chosen eight
In 2011, the same year Pedrick was named ASA’s president, eight of the vintage neon signs were chosen and distributed to ASA member companies to restore. McGeachy reached out to these companies and, essentially, handed the next sign in the pile to each one in turn.

“It was especially fitting to have Blanchett Neon involved, as half of these signs were originally built by them,” says Pedrick.

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The project’s initial inspiration came when Edmonton heritage planner David Holdsworth rescued rescued the Canadian Furniture sign in 2002.

Canadian Furniture
Sam Dolinko began working in Edmonton in 1933 and opened Canadian Furniture in 1936. At 
the time, furniture stores and ‘exchanges’ had found commercial opportunities with each wave of immigration, as newcomers settled into their homes and upwardly mobile families refreshed their furnishings whenever they could afford to do so.

Dolinko and his wife Cila’s son Max also managed the store, which continued to thrive in the 1970s and ‘80s. It finally closed in 1998, after more than 60 years in business.

Facing the scrap heap in 2002, the sign was donated by Caryl Dolinko and restored by Blanchett Neon.

Canadian National Railway
Salvaged from a Calgary freight building before it was demolished, donated by the Alberta Railway Museum and now restored by Newlook Signs, the Canadian National Railway (CNR) sign is typical of those that were used to indicate freight and telegraph services along railways in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.

Cliff’s Auto Parts
Donated by Edmonton’s municipal government and restored by Advantage Signs, this sign was for an auto parts business—owned by Whilliam Choma and managed by Phillip Fath—that operated from 1959 until at least 1976, moving several times.

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