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Neon wrong kind of historic for Congress Avenue

Friday, October 28, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

At the most recent Historic Landmark Commission meeting, commissioners faced the question of when “historic” was, exactly. One of Austin’s most celebrated new restaurants provoked the question, by proposing installation of a sign that the owners said was historic, though commissioners unanimously agreed it was not the right kind of historic.

In the end, commissioners voted unanimously against the proposed neon blade sign that would have hung on the landmarked Townsend-Thompson Building at 718 Congress Ave., the location of the Townsend restaurant. They suggested that the owners of the restaurant return with a plan for a smaller, halo-lit sign instead.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the sign was based on an old neon sign that hung on the building when it was the ladies’ clothing store Franklins. That sign also had exposed neon; however, the design standards for the district today “strongly discourage” exposed neon. Nonetheless, it is allowed where the commission determines it is appropriate for the context and character of the building and district as a whole.

Sadowsky said that his office had two issues with this sign in particular: the precedent that would be set by exposed neon and the fact that it is “way too big.” Design standards limit blade signs to 6 square feet; the proposed sign is 35 square feet. Sadowsky explained that while there are a lot of buildings on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street that had neon signs in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the buildings themselves are from the 19th century.

Steven Weisburd, who is the principal owner of PLC Townsend LLC, which owns the Townsend, spoke in favor of the sign. He told the commission that the size of the proposed sign was “exactly the same” as the Franklins sign. He said that when celebrating the lighting of the Paramount Theatre’s new sign, he received a historic picture of the block that showed both signs intact, across from each other. The picture was a gift from Paramount Theatre Executive Director Jim Ritts, who encouraged pursuit of the sign because “it would be wonderful for this historic block.”

Weisburd said the sign was based on the standards for the district, as he understood them, “based on historic proof” of the ’30s and ’40s.

“The entire goal of the Townsend was to respect the history and the dignity of the Townsend-Thompson Building,” said Weisburd. “We believe we are respecting the history of the building. The owner of the building agrees, and the businesses that all have blade signs agree this is a way to enhance the historical significance of this block.”

Commissioner Terri Myers objected to the “anachronistic nature” of the history associated with the sign, which she also pointed out was different than when the building was built.

“There’s a false sense of historicism. There’s an inauthenticity of putting these kinds of signs on buildings not of that period,” said Myers. “It’s not appropriate.”

Commissioner Beth Valenzuela said she agreed and that the pictures showed a different facade of the building. “The facade has now been restored, and to put that sign on top of a restored facade is creating a false sense of history,” said Valenzuela. “I don’t think any sign at that location would be appropriate.”

Myers said that she understood that business owners wanted to attract people to the area, but that it is the commissioners’ duty to determine whether the sign is in keeping with the historic district.

Photo courtesy of Austin History Center.

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