In San Jose, the signs for Winchester Shopping Center, Jose Theater, Stephen’s Meat Products, City Center Motel and the Safeway where Futurama Bowl used to be, all have one thing in common. These signs are among the 25 signs that appear in “The San Jose Signs Project’s Guide to the Vintage Signage of San Jose.” The guidebook was produced by The San Jose Signs Project (www.facebook.com/sanjosesignproject) with sponsorship from the Preservation Action Council of San Jose (www.preservation.org).
“The San Jose Signs Project is essentially a virtual platform for facilitating community engagement about what we’re going to do about all the historic signs at risk in San Jose,” said Heather David, a San Jose resident who has been involved with The San Jose Signs Project since its inception in 2017. “To save a sign, we prefer to save it in its historic context.
“We prefer that a sign stays close to its original location,” continued David. “A number of signs have been relocated to History San Jose. We’ve had a number of signs in past years that were put there. We lost some signs that were demolished. We also lost signs to other collectors and museums. The goal is to keep San Jose history in San Jose.”
Although Stephen’s Meat Products is no longer in business, David considers its remaining sign, which features a dancing pig, a marker for a nostalgic time when roadside businesses advertised their products or services with neon signs.
“There’s a timing device that will shift the legs back and forth,” David said of the sign for Stephen’s Meat Products. “If you stand underneath the sign, you can hear the electricity flowing through it. The bulbs underneath the main banner are called chasing bulbs so they will go in a sequence. The associated building was torn down in 2017 and they were clearing that property for new development. There was public outcry about keeping the sign. The sign has been in its original spot for 10 years.”
According to David, the vandalized sign hasn’t been maintained. Money from The San Jose Signs Project’s guidebook will go toward repairs. So far, the Preservation Action Council of San Jose fundraised $25,000 and seeks an extra $10,000 to fix the sign.
“We haven’t received any money from the city and we haven’t received money from corporations with the exception of Bassian Farms, which owns Stephen’s Meat Products now,” David said. “People can donate money by going to www.preservation.org/donations.”
The City Center Motel’s sign features a diving lady, an indicator of a pool on site.
“They’re going to build a multi-story condo development on the property where the sign sits,” David said. “The Preservation Action Council is trying to work with the developer to make sure the public can still see the sign. People have been looking at the sign for 50 years. The sign is part of the cultural fabric of San Jose. It’s the last motel diving lady sign in all of California. We view that as a work of art, a piece of history.”
For David, a sign can tell a story and give historical context to a location.
“There is the sign for Wing’s Chinese Restaurant in San Jose’s Japantown,” said David, giving an example of such a sign. “What is a Chinese restaurant sign doing in Japantown? The restaurant, Wing’s, dates to 1925. It is the oldest restaurant in San Jose that has been in continuous operation.
“The reason why there is a Chinese restaurant in Japantown is because the Chinese restaurant was there first,” explained David. “The wings on the sign flap. It’s a historic neon sign. People like taking pictures of it. For me, it represents a lot more. It represents the Chinese presence in San Jose and in Japantown.”