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Landmark Commission says no to neon sign for downtown P. Terry’s

Monday, August 4, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

P. Terry’s Burger Stand is coming to downtown Austin, but it will not be sporting a neon sign, much to the chagrin of its owner.

Last week, the Historic Landmark Commission denied a request for a neon sign for P. Terry’s latest location at 515 Congress Avenue.

 Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted that while the commission had shown flexibility around signs in the past, but they were standing fast when it came to exposed neon on noncontributing buildings in the historic district. He recommended that the commission continue in that vein.

“Staff has a grave concern that exposed neon on this building will set a precedent,” said Sadowsky. “Then we have a forest of neon on nonhistoric buildings in the middle of our historic district.”

“I may be worrying way more than I need to,” said Sadowsky. “But the fact is we have a standard that says no exposed neon.”

P. Terry himself, Patrick Terry, said that he understood the concern. He stressed the historical significance of neon in his presentation.

“Neon has been around for 100 years,” said Terry. “I guess what I would ask you to do is look at the sign, and to see if you feel like it’s tasteful and fits and belongs in Austin, on a bank tower, at the corner of Sixth and Congress.”

Terry said that his company put a lot of thought into its buildings and how they look, with the understanding that they would be around for a long time.

“Our intent here is honorable. We are not here to trash up this city,” said Terry. “We came here with hat in hand thinking that we designed a nice sign that would look nice on that corner.”

Commissioner Terri Myers said that she understood that Terry had honorable intentions, but she felt they were bound to follow their guidelines, which do not allow exposed neon.

“We need to follow this guideline, unless we are ready to change it,” said Myers.

Evan Thompson, the former director of the Preservation Society of Austin, explained that there was a movement in Charleston, S.C., in the King Street Historic District, to reintroduce neon. He said that it was not something that should be done on an ad hoc basis, but suggested the city might consider rethinking the exposed neon ban.

“It is a historic material that’s been lost, but it can be reintroduced in a sensitive way,” said Thompson.

Chair Laurie Limbacher pointed out that they had allowed the use of neon in districts where there was a historic precedent for neon.

A representative for P. Terry’s, Matt Ates, pointed out that the Jimmy Johns sandwich shop to the east of the P. Terry’s site had exposed neon and, in fact, “the entire window is exposed neon.”

Sadowsky assured Ates and commissioners that Jimmy Johns would be dealt with separately. He explained that sign was not legal and had not been approved by the commission.

“We will be taking action on the illegal signage,” said Sadowsky.

The building at 515 Congress Avenue is not itself historic, but it is in a historic district, which gives the commission authority over its signs. Commissioners approved all but the exposed neon part of the sign.

The commission voted 5-0 to deny the request, with Commissioners John Rosato and Dan Leary absent from the meeting.


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