Signs of the Times

Carey Hilliard’s trips to Las Vegas inspired him to ring his name in flashing lights and oversized letters in the 1960s, differentiating his drive in from the rest of the Hilliard family restaurants. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

For the first half of the 20th century, American signage was decorous, dignified and more than a little boring. Then came neon, flashing a bright and hopeful message—the war is over, so celebrate we will.

Gone was the black-and-white respectability of hand-painted signs. Neon sold the future: Levi’s and Lucky Strikes, cars and televisions, entertainment of every description. These advertisements were a laborious enterprise, made by craftsmen bending heated glass tubes into letters and shapes to be filled with neon, argon and mercury. Here in Savannah, as in much of the developed world, neon revolutionized businesses and defined the city skyline. These high voltage fusions of art and commercialism didn’t just play along. They lit the way.

Though LED technology has rendered neon a thing of the past, some of Savannah’s most electric landmarks have been refurbished or reinterpreted for our collective appreciation. Look up and listen closely. That familiar buzz feels fresh, despite the years.

 

Williams Seafood was first a roadside stand, then a beloved family restaurant set along the Bull River. Destroyed by arson in 2004, it closed its doors but the 1950s sign still stands tall on Highway 80. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

Thunderbird Inn opened in 1964 near the entrance to Savannah’s Talmadge Bridge and has maintained its original post-war Americana sign ever since. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

Before opening The Grey in 2014, founding partner Johno Morisano committed to restoring the entire façade of the 1938 bus depot, iconic sign included. He hired local sign designer Doug Bean to recreate the original style with The Grey’s logo. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

When the Diner on Abercorn was renovated in 2010, owner Arnold F. Adams Jr. revamped the early 1990s Pankake Palace sign to reflect the restaurant’s new pink and- turquoise logo. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

Commissioned in the 1950s by then-owners Jim and Ilsa Hodgson, The Prescription Shop sign has remained unchanged since it was built. It still stands outside of the 65th Street shop, now named Quick Rx Drugs. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

In 1957, Tom Carol commissioned a sign for his classic Savannah drive-in, Tom’s Diner, along Skidaway Road near Thunderbolt. In the 1970s, Tom’s son, Larry, took over the restaurant and rebranded the signage as his own. Photo by Devin Ray Smith

 

In 2015, graphic designer Zach Kozdron created the Sorry Charlie’s sign by freshening up a 1947 original commissioned by Frank C. Matthews, which included updating the fish motif with new neon. Photo by Devin Ray Smith
More from Maggie Harney

5 Minutes with Miss Black Georgia USA

“The real problem with striving for physical perfection is there is no...
Read More