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Monday, April 27, 2009

Fresno's Vintage Neon Signs

20070224 A toast, to vintage neon!
An old sign in Fresno. I wish I remembered where.

I'll admit it: Fresno is not in Northern California. But I'm not going to strictly limit myself just because of the name I chose for the blog way back when. I live in Sacramento, and while Sacramento is part of Northern California, it is also a part of the Great Central Valley, which extends from Bakersfield in the south to Redding in the north. All of it is linked by the backbone of the state, CA 99, formerly U.S. Route 99.

In early 2007 I felt like I had accumulated enough photographs of vintage neon signs in the Central Valley that it wouldn't take a whole lot more to have enough for a book. Of course, I've since realized that many of the neon photos I took early on are not worth sharing with the world, and I've spent a lot of time trying to get better photos of the same signs. But at the time I was just looking to round out my collection geographically.

I headed off to Fresno, stopping along the way in places like Manteca, Chowchilla, and Merced. That led to me arriving in Fresno late in the afternoon on a short February day. I quickly ran around and shot what I could, and had plenty of time in the evening to shoot signs at night.

Fresno was a total wonderland for me. I had already taken hundreds of photos of neon signs in Redding, Red Bluff, Chico, Marysville/Yuba City, Sacramento, Lodi, and Stockton, so I fully expected there to be a good number of interesting old signs in Fresno. But I was unprepared for the abundance and magnificence of what I found in terms of old signs and architecture, but particularly of my very favorite subject, historic theaters.

I slept in an old motel along the historic route of U.S. 99, pre-freeways. I chose it because it was the only one along that strip that had a functioning sign. This proved to be a poor criterion for choosing a place to stay the night. I paid $50 cash up front. The sheets were stained. I couldn't get the heat to work. Rain from earlier that morning had soaked through the roof and the ceiling, and led to some of the popcorn texturing from the ceiling falling onto the carpet. I could only flush the toilet by taking the lid off and manipulating the mechanism inside the tank. And I nearly forgot the train whistles from the tracks across the street.

Getting little sleep, I got an early start the next morning, and ran about madly trying to capture everything I could in a short period of time. Soon enough, I set off, having spent well under 24 hours in the city. But I had pretty good luck in that time, particularly in that the skies were clear after the aforementioned rainstorm. I hadn't checked the forecast or anything, but I was blessed with deep blue skies. Good thing, as I didn't use a polarizing filter.

A couple of months later when I was quite a ways south of Sacramento, I decided to quickly revisit Fresno and try to get a couple of shots in afternoon light that I hadn't gotten on that previous trip. The forecast called for blue skies in Fresno, but the forecast lied, and I was disappointed with both the lighting and the skies.

In wasn't until two years later that I saw Fresno again, this time just briefly stopping in on a trip to Bakersfield, made for much the same purpose as my original trip to Fresno. This time I visited an area I hadn't made it to the previous times, the old U.S. 99 route on the south edge of town. I found some real beauties there.

I'm sure there are more signs that I didn't find in my short explorations--this is not a complete guide. Not yet, anyhow. And I haven't had a chance to research my subjects yet, so mostly what I have now is just photographs and addresses, but I do hope to revise this many times in the future to add more detail. Clovis, once a separate town, but now part of Fresno's suburban sprawl, is included in this, but I will give it its own section. The rest of the Fresno signs are arranged alphabetically by street name, except for those along the historic U.S. 99 route, which are in order from north to south, and which will comprise my starting point.

Historic U.S. Route 99

20070223 Astro Motel
3393 N. Parkway Dr.
Astro Motel

In addition to the gorgeous sign above, they have this one freestanding:

20070223 Old Motel Sign

20070224 Arcade Trailer Park
N. Golden State Blvd.
Arcade Trailer Park

20070224 Del Mar Motel
1849 N. Golden State Blvd.
Del Mar Motel

20070223 Del Mar Motel

1473 N. Golden State Blvd.
Hollywood Inn

Hmmm. I don't know why I wouldn't have a photo of this sign, since I remember it, and I shot everything around it, but I can't find a photo I took of it. So look at this one instead.

20070224 The Sands Motel
1411 N. Golden State Blvd.
The Sands Motel

I was accosted by a pedestrian who wanted to know why I was taking a photo of these signs. I explained that I love neon signs, to which she pointed out that there was no neon on either sign. But it was neon. You can see the hole for the tubes. It looked a lot neater before they decided to break off the tubing and repaint it. See this shot.

20070224 Town House Motor Hotel
1383 N. Golden State Blvd.
Town House Motel

And the very cool sign for their coffee shop, even though it isn't neon:

20070224 Town House Coffee Shop

20070224 Fresno Motel
1325 N. Golden State Blvd.
Fresno Motel

20070224 Motel El Camino
N. Golden State Blvd.
El Camino Motel

200702246 Bel Air Motel
740 W. Olive Ave.
Bel Air Motel

This motel was recently demolished. It's just a dirt lot with 3 palm trees at this point. My favorite was the sign for the old dining and banquet room.

20070224 Bel Air Motel

2155 S. G St.
Andy's Cocktails

We've skipped over downtown and reached the southern edges of Fresno by the time we hit this sign. I'm not sure what the exact route of 99 was through downtown, but I hope to find out in a couple of months.

This is a beautifully maintained sign that I really should have photographed. I saw it when I was running late coming back from Bakersfield, and I just keep seeing more and more signs to stop for which was making me even later. I didn't stop for this one, figuring that the good condition of the sign was an indicator that it would still be around next time I visit Fresno. I hope I'm right. This is the only shot I can find of it right now.

20090419 FREE TV
2309 S. G St.
Fresno City Motel

This isn't the main sign, but one a block away. The main one isn't that interesting. While I want a shot of it, I didn't stop for one when I saw it.

20090419 Motel Big Star
2325 S. G St.
Big Star Motel

This is one of those signs that makes my jaw hit the floor when I spot it. This old stretch of U.S. 99, not quite visible from the CA 99 freeway, is a seedy area. The motel has a fence around the parking lot with barbed wire on top, and all of the nearby streets have "NO STOPPING ANYTIME" signs. Had residents of the motel but standing around, I probably wouldn't have gotten my shot, but there was anybody around at all late on a lovely Sunday afternoon--it was rather eerie. I illegally parked and got my shot.

20090419 Cafe 309
2395 S. G St.
Cafe 309

20090419 Gables Motel
2833 E. Church Ave.
Gables Motel

Not far from the Big Star Motel, this one looked a little safer to me, and was easy to park by.

20090419 Ayres Motel
2710 S. Orange Ave.
Ayres Motel

On the far southern edge of Fresno. The owner of this old motel came charging out to find out why I was taking pictures. When I explained my interest in neon signs and old highway routes, he seemed stymied. He wasn't happy with the answer, but couldn't think of much to say in return other than, "But the sign doesn't work." That's too bad, but it doesn't have any affect on a daylight shot.

20090419 Cooled by Refrigeration

The motel comes with two bonus signs!

20090419 Ayres Motel

If you are traveling down the old 99 route in search of vintage neon signs, it's worth continuing on from here, as soon you'll see the gorgeously rusting signs for the California Motel and Fowler Motel, but I'll cover that stretch in another blog entry and return to Fresno proper.

The Rest of Fresno

4151 E. Ashlan Ave.
Ashlan Park Shopping Ctr

I saw this driving by, but haven't stopped for a shot yet. Here's a photo of it.

20090418 Fresno Automatic Transmissions
322 E. Belmont Ave.
Fresno Automatic Transmissions

Now La Segunda thrift store.

200702246 7up
about 2300 block of E. Belmont Ave.
7-Up sign

Just my best guess from memory as to the location.

20070224 Maxwell Studio
415 N. Blackstone Ave.
Maxwell Studio

20070415 Paradise
4674 N. Blackstone Ave.
Paradise Liquor

20070415 Me n Ed's Pizza Parlor
4735 N. Blackstone Ave.
Me 'n' Ed's Pizza

20070415 Blackstone Village
4757 N. Blackstone Ave.
Blackstone Village

5420 N. Blackstone Ave.
Caliche's Frozen Custard

I don't even remember if I saw this in person, or just saw this photo from one of my Flickr contacts.

20070415 Midway Liquor
N. Blackstone Ave.
Ronnie's Midway Market/Midway Liquor

20070415 Motel
N. Blackstone Ave.

20070224 Radiator M
Radiator M

20070224 T Radiator
Radiator T

20070224 Arrow Electric Motor
645 Broadway
Arrow Electric Motor

20070224 Baskin's Auto Supply
729 Broadway
Baskin's Auto Supply

20070223 Crest Theatre, Fresno
1170 Broadway
Crest Theatre

20070224 Pope Tire Co
1709 Broadway
Pope Tire Co.

The business is even older, but it operated at this address from 1941-1998.

20070223 Rainbow Ballroom
1725 Broadway
Rainbow Ballroom

I was fortunate that there was a performance here the one night I was in Fresno, so I got to see it all lit up.

20070223 Motel Here
1828 Broadway
Econo Inn

Presumably a motel under a different name when the big arrow was installed.

3131 N. Cedar Ave.
Cedar Lanes

I'm pretty sure I've never seen this sign, but it just made my list as I saw this photo of it on Flickr.

20070223 U Save Liquor
4131 N. Clovis Ave.
Tarpey U-Save Liquors

Just barely outside of Clovis.

20070224 Eagle Cafe
575 Divisadero St.
Eagle Cafe

20090419 Lamp Post
The Lamp Post
607 Divisadero St.

20070224 Lum's Chop Suey
609 Divisadero St.
Lum's Chop Suey

838 F St.
Azteca Theatre

Darn it, I know I have a photo of this, but I can't find it.

20070224 La Fiesta
844 F St.
La Fiesta

20070223 Revolving G
1171 Fulton St. (now Fulton Mall)
Guarantee Savings

Presumably the 3-sided, revolving G sign was installed when Guarantee Savings took over the building (constructed in 1916) in 1961.

20070223 Warnors Theatre
1400 Fulton St.
Warnors Theatre

The neon sign is nice on this theater, but there are some details that are even better, and I've heard the interior is magnificent.

20070224 Wilson Theatre
1445 Fulton St.
Wilson Theatre/Cornerstone Church

20070224 Luau
1663 Fulton St.

20070223 Tokyo Garden
1711 Fulton St.
Tokyo Garden

20070223 Golden Resaurant 2
1135 N. Fulton St.
Golden Restaurant

20070224 Kerr Rug Co.
539 G St.
Kerr Rug Co.

20070224 Liquor Store
7xx G St.
Liquor store

20070224 Rainbow Cafe
727 G St.
1965 Rainbow Cafe

20070223 Hotel Virginia
2125-2139 Kern St.
Hotel Virginia

In operation under that name from 1920-1980.

20070224 Mendes
1915 W. Olive Ave.

Just a small market, despite the fabulous sign, I believe.

20070223 Liquor
1805 W. Olive Ave.
Marab Liquor

One sign freestanding, one on the building.

20070223 Marab Liquor

20090419 Angelo's
710 W. Olive Ave.
Angelo's Drive-In

Since 1954, as you can see it says in the photo below.

20070224 Angelo's Drive-In

20070224 Pianos
234 W. Olive Ave.

20070224 Fresh Up with 7up
about 713 E. Olive Ave.
7-Up sign

20070224 Tower Theatre, Fresno
815 E. Olive Ave.
Tower Theater

20070223 Tower Theatre, Fresno

20070224 Lauck's Bakery
935 E. Olive
Lauck's Bakery

It's now a bakery under another name, and the lovely sign is gone.

20070224 Dee's Plumbing Supplies
3563 E Tulare St.
Dee's Plumbing

20070224 Winton's Vista Pharmacy
4233 E. Tulare St.
Winton's Vista Pharamacy

20070224 Fong's Chinese Dinners
4608 E Tulare St.
Fong's Chinese Dinners

20070224 U Save Liquor
4622 E Tulare St.
U Save Liquor

Van Ness Ave.
Fresno Arch

20070224 Hardy's, Mexico Theatre
944 Van Ness Ave.
Hardy's/Mexico Theatre

20070224 Mexico Theatre/Iglesia

20070223 Haron's
2222 Ventura St.
Haron's Jaguar

20070223 Halwood's
2149 Ventura St.
Halwood's Service

20070415 Castillo's Mexican Food
3559 E. Ventura Ave.
Castillo's Mexican Food

20070224 Tecolote Dance Cafe
Tecolote Dance Cafe

I can't find any information on this place. My recollection is that it was downtown, on the southwestern side of the railroad tracks, like on E or F St.

20070415 DiCicco's Pizzeria
CiCicco's Italian Restaurant

There are 11 of them in the Fresno area, and I'm not sure how many have this wonderful signage. I know I have a photograph of the original one on the 100 block of North Blackstone, but I don't think this is where this shot is from.


20070415 Clovis
Clovis Ave.
Clovis sign

20070415 Lil Brown Jug
957 Clovis Ave.
Lil Brown Jug Liquors

20070223 Skyline Club
1419 Railroad Ave.
Skyline Club


Thomas Hawk said...

Tom, what an amazing collection of vintage Fresno. I too took a trip down there, last November, and was amazed at how rich the area is for vintage signs.

I think my favorite stretch was the motels on the Golden State Highway, which you've captured well here. I also liked the area around the Tower Theater.

I'd planned on staying at one of the motels on the edge of town with a neon sign but decided against it after visiting. The area seemed a bit sketchy and I had my two young boys with me so we ended up at the Motel 6 instead.

Fresno is definitely a town that I'm looking forward to getting back to again and again. I think you, and I, just scratched the surface to a place where I'm sure that there are even more fantastic and vintage signs.

Anonymous said...

Nice work as usual. I'll try to put the information to good use in the near future if I am able to.

Dennis Dixson

Anonymous said...

Great shots of these signs. Hopefully some get restored rather than torn down. FYI, that first 7-up sign you have is on the 800 block of E Belmont at E Belmont and N Fulton.

Michael M. said...

Beautiful signs. Thanks for taking the time to capture and preserve these historic images.

To answer your question about the route US 99 used to take through downtown Fresno: At the time the freeway was built, Golden State Boulevard used to dump onto Van Ness going northbound. Southbound traffic used Broadway. Traffic in both directions came together at Divisadero, then through the Belmont Circle and north toward Madera along Golden State Boulevard.

Before the highway was expanded into the four-lane Golden State Boulevard south of town, 99 came up from Fowler along Railroad Avenue, then jogged briefly on Cherry (not a through route any more at that point), along Broadway to Divisadero. I don't know which years this route was in effect.

Kevin Towns said...

Great collection of Fresno signs. But alas, my "Holy Grail" of Fresno signs remains elusive. I'd love to see an image of the old "Uncle Tom's Liquor Store" sign from

Cielo said...

I think the martini glass is from the Rendezvous on Fulton and Olive or Belmont. And the guy on the horse was otiginally from the beautiful Hacienda Motel on 99 at Olive or Belmont. What a fabulous place that was in its former glory, with top line performers, many conventions and the mermaid show in the bar!Born and raised in Fresno, I had my 21st birthday champagne there. Suire enjoyed this trip down memory lane, revisiting places I grew up with.

Kevin Towns said...

Still missing the most iconic sign I remember from my childhood... the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” liquor store sign that was on the corner of First & Tulare for as long as I can remember. Now gone. No photos to be found on line.

Unknown said...

Thought I was the only one to appreciate old signs, neon or not.