Neon is not a dirty word

The DC DNA launched their new blog yesterday with a posting that calls for “signage legislation that addresses the entire downtown area and a moratorium on any new advertising signage until we have it.” The genesis of this call for signage legislation was spurred by Western Development’s recent interest in expanding their signage at Gallery Place according to allowances specified in the condo documents.

The proposal for new signage at Gallery Place is a special case as it is multi-media signage (video, no sound) that spans 6+ stories. I won’t take a side on that debate one way or another as I don’t feel I fully grasp the logistics of the proposed signage or how it would impact the condo residents. I couldn’t follow the presentation fully but it may be only feet from the residents windows.

In the Million Insect Storm, the Constellations Form

It’s hyperbole to suggest Gallery Place is on the brink of becoming Times Square

However, I do want to say that 1) I love what great signs do for a street and the public realm 2) I don’t think “neon” is a dirty word and 3) I think downtown DC has a deficit of quality signage. I will also add that I find the Gallery Place is becoming Times Square claims a little silly and akin to every DC neighborhood that worries about about becoming the next Adams Morgan because two bars opened up =)

A few D.C. neon signs:

Central Liquor, Penn Quarter

The Studio Theatre

Studio Theatre, Logan Circle

Blue Glow

Lincoln Theatre, U Street

Waffle Shop

Waffle Shop, formerly Penn Quarter

Signs from other cities: with special emphasis on Belltown which has Seattle’s highest population density (~20,000/sqmi) proving neon and residents can co-exist.

Art Deco - Colony Hotel in South Beach, Miami, Florida

Colony Hotel, South Beach

Cyclops Cafe and Lounge, Belltown/Seattle

Rotating Sign

Elephant Car Wash, Belltown/Seattle

Ride 'Em, Cowboy

Top Pot Doughnuts, Belltown/Seattle

If downtown signage legislation is needed I hope that it does not close the door to interesting and dynamic signage. Steering signage towards the path of being small and discreet to appease the most objectionable of residents diminishes the ability to create a vibrant place. Let’s keep the door open to some forms of colorful signage. Ideally for local businesses like boutique hotels, theatres or restaurants rather than McDonalds or CVS…

Photo credits: M.V. Jantzen, ThomasHawk, ghengis connie, Mr. T in DC, Patrick Saccoccia

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  1. 1

    fourthandeye says

    It’s a different beast altogether because the sign is in an industrial area viewable across the harbor by the residential/tourism areas – but I just want to say I love the Domino Sugars sign in Baltimore.

  2. 2

    John Thompson says

    I love the neon, video, character of the signage & the direction it's taking in Chinatown! The pictures posted of the excellent examples of beautiful signage & outstanding neon are terrific! I used to live across the street from the Studio Theater at Lofts 14, and looking out at the red neon every night was simply beautiful. Everyone that came over really loved it as much as I did. I miss it!

  3. 3

    si says

    I like the signs too especially if they are well done like the examples you have…but there is nothing more annoying that hearing them play the same riff over & over, especially if you live right there. the whole situation with 7th & H really stank and the result is the talking signs are turned off but the BHI still gets to scream bloody murder & spread the crazy once a week or more if they feel like it….downtown exempted from noise legislation & all.

    glad dna started a blog :)

  4. 4

    Anonymous says

    The DC DNA is tool for Miles Grove and the other “retiree crowd” to try to control the downtown area and keep DC from becoming a vibrant city. For crying out loud the only thing they ever fought for was a freaking grocery store. Other wise they always bitch about everything and say they speak for everyone. They dont. – JS

  5. 5

    fourthandeye says

    @JS – I don’t share your view of the DNA and I’m not even half way to retirement. As individuals we’re not all going to agree on every issue with the organization as a whole. But when 555 Mass or other MVT buildings have called on the DNA and Charley Docter for help they give it. That’s crucial as our ANC rep (Silver) is mostly invisible.

  6. 6

    fourthandeye says

    I should say I don’t know the DNA’s official stance on neon signs. Their blog posting only calls for greater legislation without tipping off what that might mean. Although in the last two DNA affiliated meetings I’ve attended (March meeting and the Buddha Bar forum) participants from the audience did express disdain for neon. So I have concern that there is a pocket of influence will try to squash bold signage.

    I don’t subscribe to the less is more philosophy of signage. It is possible for big colorful signage if designed well to be far better than discreet signage. While 7th immediately along Verizon is a colorful area, Downtown in general needs a greater variety of bold signage.

  7. 7

    Laff Dude says

    if you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you will get an entirely different perspective on neon signs because it is neon overload in that city. you can buy postcards of the neon signs. some like it, some think it’s horrendous. in DC I’d describe neon signs as occurring very occasionally.

    as far as 7th and H is concerned, a balance must be struck. people do live there and sleep there. unlike Times Square where the buildings are much taller, the impact of “impressive” signage at 7th and H is greater so the due diligence needs to be “impressive” and the care taken greater before taking a next step. HK is a good reminder that you need to consider the end state.

  8. 8

    Cozmot says


    If you bothered to attend a DNA meeting you would see something far different than a "retiree crowd." Cute little quip, but it's ignorant.

    You're also not informed about the DNA's accomplishments.

    The DNA worked with the city council, the ANC the Downtown BID to get Mayor Fenty to shut down Club Bounce. If you'll recall, when this club let out several hundred youths swarmed 7th Street, driving away patrons and hurting business. Or did you think those youths were "vibrant"?

    Worked closely with the Downtown BID for funding from the city to for the Downtown Streetscape project. This resulted in $9 million. This will bring improvements and upgrades to our neighborhood. Or do you prefer the more "rustic" parts of our neighborhood?

    Got the city to open a new Ward 6 voting precinct in Chinatown. Did you like going to Capitol Hill?

    Raised thousands of dollars for downtown charities.

    Supported and helped push through the single-serve moratorium. Or did you like chatting with those city fellas drinking and loitering at 7th & H?

    Worked with other neighborhood associations and the ANC to negotiate several voluntary agreements for establishments serving liquor.

    More important, the DNA created an awareness among our city leaders and agencies that there is a downtown community. We have a voice now; we have clout. And city leaders are not only listening to us, they come to us at DNA meetings.

    Now, JS, what have you done lately to make this a vibrant community?

  9. 9

    fourthandeye says

    >> "HK is a good reminder that you need to consider the end state."

    Our downtown doesn't even have a fraction as much signage as Memphis or Seattle but people still cling to these Times Square and Hong Kong types doomsday scenarios. Those are silly end states to be worry about. We'd have plenty of time to stop the train before arriving at those end states, but we don't have to stop the train now.

    I'm not advocating for zero regulation of signage. I just don't want the pendulum to swing so far to the right all the life is snuffed out.

  10. 10

    fourthandeye says

    I removed the last comment. It started out as:

    Actually, I have attended the DNA meetings and even helped host one in their early days. I am fully aware of the DNA.

    Then it devolved into slander against one individual.

    My take is if you’ve got a problem with somebody contact them. This isn’t the place for it…