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  • 08.25.15

A New Book Documents San Francisco’s Disappearing Neon Signs

Two photographers capture the promise and allure of San Francisco’s “liquid fire” as it fades from their city’s urban landscape.

Neon signs have been going dark all across the country, only to be replaced by less atmospheric LED lights and cheaper forms of signage. As neon signs go dim, preservationists have been popping up to maintain these indelible features of the American landscape. Museums like the Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA have opened up in the last few years to restore and display abandoned signs, but activism around preserving signs extends back to the 1970s, when Jeff Friedman opened his Let There Be Neon restoration shops and published his neon bible under the same name.

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Fueled by a similar nostalgia for the form of signage dubbed as “liquid fire” in its heyday in the 1920s, husband and wife photography team Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna have spent the last five years trekking around San Francisco documenting their favorite signs before they disappear. In their book, San Francisco Neon, they collect over 200 photos of classic neon signs lighting up the city’s diverse neighborhoods, from the martini glass sign that has become a Mission District icon to the art deco blade signs for the city’s historic movie theaters.

Created in a time before global branding homogenized street signs across the U.S., the neon signs Homan and Barna capture are uniquely San Franciscan. “The vintage fonts and design of these signs are an integral part of San Francisco’s creative and cultural heritage,” Homan writes in an email. “The design and typography in the majority of these signs don’t come from corporate guidelines. Small local neon shops created original fonts by hand, created uniquely for the personality of the business and neighborhood.” Compared to the signs seen in New York City’s Time Square or Las Vegas, San Francisco’s neon signage is generally smaller in scale, designed to be seen close up, from the vantage point of the sidewalk.

The husband and wife team started photographing the city’s neon signs after watching one of their favorites being taken down. The Hunt Donut sign in the Mission District was rare example of an animated neon sign that had survived against the odds. It showed a sequence of donuts flashing down and dunking into a coffee cup with a splash, a “perfect example of neon design creativity and humor,” says Barna. Luckily, a twin sign still exists in the Marina district and is showcased in the book.

Preservationists and curators have been monitoring and protecting neon signs across the country, but efforts to preserve any aspect of the San Francisco urban landscape seem especially pressing against a backdrop of major social and commercial changes. As the city transformed in recent years into the capital-fueled center of the tech boom, startup millionaires have overrun the city’s bohemian neighborhoods. San Francisco Neon captures a city nostalgic for what it once was, documenting places like the Castro Theater, whose flashing neon sign was designed by Timothy Pflueger and restored by Neon Works for the filming of Milk, the 2008 biopic on Harvey Milk.

Barna says people in San Francisco mourn the loss of legacy signs and the small businesses they represent. People who have bought the book have contacted them with personal stories about particular signs in their neighborhoods. Now the pair has widened their territory, and hope to do a book on neon signs all over California.

You can purchase San Francisco Neon for $33 here.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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