For immediate release
October 11, 2012
Beloved Neon Felix Sign Neutered with LEDs; L.A. Preservationists Tell GM "Fix That Cat!"
LOS ANGELES- In February 2011, Felix Chevrolet, a Southern California institution since 1921, announced plans for an energy overhaul overseen by Alpine Green Solutions and meant to lower its carbon footprint and electricity bills. The company proudly announced its aim to become the state’s first auto dealership to earn Zero Net Energy status, as Alpine’s Robert Orfino observed “At the end of the day we’re really trying to make them more profitable. That drives everything.”
But no mention was made of any changes planned for dealership’s beloved neon sign.
To the community’s shock, the energy overhaul has resulted in major, unannounced alterations to the dealership’s historic Felix the Cat sign, which has beckoned to motorists on Figueroa since legendary signage pioneer Wayne Heath (Winchell’s, Denny’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken) designed and erected it in 1958. For the past several weeks, Felix no longer glows with the green, white and orange neon tubes that were the cat’s signature, but instead gives off the cold gleam of tiny LED lights.
Paul Greenstein, who has built and restored some of L.A.’s best-known neon signs over the past 35 years (including Cole’s French Dip, Broadway Bar and Jensen’s Recreation Center), says, “Changing the Felix sign from neon to LED is an incredibly wrong-headed decision by GM and the dealership. LEDs are expensive to install, and no cheaper to run or maintain than neon, which can last for up to fifty years. But more importantly, this change has profoundly damaged this historic sign. Just as you can’t replace an old brick building with new cinderblocks and say it’s the same building, you can’t replace a neon sign with LEDs without destroying what was there originally. This is a travesty for anyone who cares about the landmarks of old Los Angeles.”
The damage to the sign is all the more troubling because in 2007, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission recommended that both the Felix the Cat sign and dealership showroom become an official city landmark, which would have granted them some limited protection against demolition or alteration. That recommendation was squashed due to opposition by Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Jan Perry, who said landmarking would stand in the way of developing the Figueroa business corridor.
At the time, Darryl Holter of Felix Chevrolet promised, “We built the sign and we maintain it. We keep it going. We’ve never made any plans to demolish the sign or do anything with the sign.” And Deputy Mayor Robert R. Ovrum, in a July 2007 letter to the Cultural Heritage Commission recommending against landmarking on behalf of the Mayor’s Office, added that, “In good faith and out of respect for the community, the owner has agreed to donate the sign and any portion of the showroom to the Peterson Automotive Museum to ensure historic preservation… The Mayor’s Office is comfortable with the compromise that the property owner has proposed and will continue to work with all parties and support alternative efforts to preserve significant elements of the site. We look forward to the extraordinary potential that the future of ‘Auto Row’ possesses in putting South Los Angeles on the map as a major revenue generator and job producer for the City of Los Angeles and therefore ask that you take this Office’s input into consideration in determining whether or not it is absolutely necessary to designate this site as a historic cultural monument.”
Just five years later, in an act of profound bad faith and disrespect for the community, the neon guts of Felix have been torn out, and replaced with historically inappropriate LED lights. Half of the cost of the $2.5 Million energy efficiency project and building renovation has been covered by General Motors, with other costs offset by city and Federal business incentives.
Well, at least the LED lights are a green alternative to inefficient old neon technology, right? Not so fast.
In a September 2012 article entitled “Neon: Green Again,” in SIGNS OF THE TIMES, the journal of the sign industry, Loren Hudson notes that Underwriters Laboratories recently included neon on its list of Green Energy Certified lighting sources. As for the supposed cost saving of LEDs versus neon light: In 2004, the 40-year-old neon Citgo sign at Fenway Park in Boston received its first LED retrofit. Cost of operation immediately increased from $8,100/year to $282,000/year, and after just five years, the LEDs failed and had to be replaced. (LINK http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/STMG/sott_201209/index.php?startid=78#/7...)
Los Angeles historian Kim Cooper noticed something was different about the Felix sign while driving past it on one of her Esotouric Black Dahlia bus tours in late September. The bright new paint job was impossible to miss, but it wasn’t until two weeks later that she discovered that Felix’ changes were more than cosmetic. Shocked to hear that the landmark neon sign had been destroyed with no public notice, and having spearheaded the successful petition campaign that compelled ConocoPhilips to stop destroying historic 76 Ball signs in 2007 (http://www.savethe76ball.com), Kim immediately launched an online petition to allow people distressed by the destruction of this Los Angeles icon ask Felix Chevrolet and General Motors to correct the damage they’ve done to this L.A. landmark.
Comments on the petition are heated, as people worldwide are shocked to learn what’s happened to the beloved sign. A sample:
“This historic, iconic legacy is too important to be bastardized by mere LED. Mr. Holter, and GM, you made a mistake, but you can right that wrong. Neon should be restored to this monument because it’s important—neon is important to LA, and this sign is important to LA and neon!” (Nathan Marsak, author of “Los Angeles Neon”)... “LED is not the future. Neon is a lost art – there is even an entire museum dedicated to it. Please keep this amazing sign as it is meant to be—the LED will make it look tacky and cheap.” (Ginger Duncan)... “This sign is iconic and is a grand example of neon used in advertising in Los Angeles for decades. It is a beloved piece of art and should be preserved as such. These are the things that make a city unique. The neon needs to be returned to Felix, so the sign is once again as the artist intended it to be.” (Shaune Steele)... “Felix Chevrolet is an iconic part of the LA scene and neon is also an iconic part of it. We are working so hard to restore neon signs and this is a major step backwards in that quest.” (Charles Fisher, preservationist)... “It’s an historical landmark in a city that doesn’t always honor their history.” (Joseph Oesterle, author of “Weird Hollywood”)... “Felix Chevrolet and its sign is the high temple of L.A.’s venerable car culture. It deserves the dignity and glamour of neon. (Marshall Astor)... “Neon art is part of our cultural heritage; replacing it with cheap imitations, just for the sake of saving money, degrades that heritage!” (Leslie Stem)... “Every time I see the sign it makes me and everyone smile. To destroy the sign would be tragic!” (Jewel Seeburg)... “Because businesses who own culturally historical landmarks should understand and be good stewards of culturally historical landmarks, not just money makers.” (Philip Mershon, Hollywood historian)... “This unique, historic character sign has been a landmark on Figueroa for many decades. It had a distinctive look that the new LEDs have obliterated. Please restore it to its original glory—perfection shouldn’t be tampered with, and it was a huge mistake to modify it.” (Margaret Wynn)... “I am a member of a multi-generational USC family. We have all grown up with the Felix sign which is located right next door. It is an important part of every Trojan’s heritage as well as that of every Angeleno.” (Gordon Pattison)... “This sign is historic and iconic and LED lights completely diminish its impact. It’s part of L.A.’s culture and Felix Chevrolet has agreed to be a steward for its upkeep, which includes keeping it in its original state and doesn’t include cold, blue LED lights” (Jane Ouweleen)... “I believe we need to preserve our history. Too many great signs and buildings are being destroyed for ‘business growth’.” (Bobbi Fabian)
The petition asks the building’s owner to honor the commitment that they made to preserve Felix when they lobbied the Mayor and City Council to block the recommendation of the Cultural Heritage Commission that the sign become an official city landmark. Felix Chevrolet promised the Mayor and the city that they had no plans to touch the sign, and if they did, they would donate it to the Peterson Automotive Museum. Felix Chevrolet must undo the damage that they’ve done and restore Felix the Cat as the neon sign him was created to be, so future generations can enjoy him.
Visit http://www.savethe76ball.com to learn more about the successful 2006-07 campaign to preserve one of the 20th Century’s most enduring design icons, and how ConocoPhilips began making new 76 Balls in red, and donated historic ball signs to several American museums.
Fix That Cat! preservation campaigner Kim Cooper is available for interviews, as are various neon historians and craftsmen and those involved in the original Felix landmarking campaign. Contact Kim (amscrayATgmailDOTcom, 323-223-2767). See the petition at http://www.change.org/petitions/general-motors-the-shammas-group-replace...