Sugar House Costume Sign preserves the past amid rapid redevelopment

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Costume Co. sign, originally designed by Lloyd S. Coley in the '50s while working for Rainbow Neon Sign Co., lives on once more as Sergio Camacho, left, and Don Fitches help put it back home in its original location at 1700 S. 1100 East on Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, in what is now called the Salt Lake Costume Apartments.

The old Salt Lake Costume sign is alight once again on the southeast corner of 1100 East and 1700 South in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood.

The knight on horseback is perched atop a new 19-unit apartment complex built from the bones of the costume shop that once sat there — a symbol of the past contrasted against a development that exemplifies the near-constant pace of recent redevelopment in this community.

For years, historic signs like this one were lost to neglect and removal, due to the unintended consequences of an old city ordinance that put significant restrictions on owners who wanted to move them to accommodate redevelopment, changing uses or even to make repairs.

“Once they came down, they couldn’t go back up,” said former Salt Lake City Councilwoman Lisa Adams, who began the process to update the sign ordinance during her time on the panel. “And no one thought about long term when that was written. No one was thinking, ‘Oh, this is stuff that we’ll want to be preserved.’”

Before the City Council updated its code in September 2018, business owners who needed to service but wanted to keep their historic signs had to take sometimes drastic measures to comply with the code.

The spinning Granite Furniture sign on 2100 South, famed for its spiky “Sputnik” on top, for example, was once mended in midair at a cost of around $30,000, said Mark Isaac, who was then the project manager for Boulder Ventures’ redevelopment of the properties.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Sputnik / Granite furniture sign at 1048 E. 2100 South on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

“We actually got a lane closure permit and a plaza permit and YESCO signs had to bring boom trucks out and do all the work from a boom truck on the building,” said Isaac, now a principal with Pinyon 8 Consulting. “We felt that that sign was such a placemaker for the building and for the history of the area that we were willing to pay extra to have it refabricated.”

The Salt Lake Costume sign was one of the first tests of the city’s new vintage sign ordinance, which provides a pathway for property owners to save signs that meet certain characteristics and allows them to be restored or recreated and reinstalled at their original sites or even at new ones.

In determining whether a sign should be saved, the city considers whether it bears a unique emblem, logo or another graphic specific to the city or region; whether it is characteristic of a specific historic period; and whether it retains or will reestablish the original design character of the sign. Billboards are not eligible for vintage sign designation.

Isaac, who continues to work on projects in the Sugar House area, called it an “excellent code change.”

“I can’t think of one negative thing about it,” he said. “We were losing some of this old creative signage and character and it’s only because of a sign ordinance that really didn’t make sense.”

The amended ordinance is also a win for the Sugar House Community Council, which became involved in advocating for updates after learning that the Sputnik sign may be in danger of being taken down.

Laurie Bray, a member of the Sugar House Community Council who serves on the Historic Sign Committee and has owned a photography business in the area since 2006, said the vintage signs are worth saving as works of art that reflect the history of the Sugar House Business District.

“Sugar House is, I think, along with the Avenues the most unique area in Salt Lake,” said Bray, who sells stylized prints of some of the neighborhood's more iconic signs. “People come there because they do appreciate the history and it helps them connect with their past.”

Adams said she was thrilled to see the council approve the new ordinance after she left office and expressed a similar sentiment, along with the hope that the updates mean more landmarks like the Salt Lake Costume sign will be preserved in the future.

“I think people have been a little stunned at how quickly Sugar House has changed and they do want to say, ‘Wait a second, we don’t want everything torn down; there are some things worth saving,’” she said. “It reminds us of what our past was and the heritage of the neighborhood.”

The Sugar House Community Council has set its sights on saving the sign that once graced Snelgrove’s ice cream store and the Nu-Crisp Popcorn sign, Bray said. The council has the former in storage and is currently looking for a place to install it.

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) The Snelgrove ice cream sign in Sugar House, Tuesday, July 2, 2013.