Archive for Thursday, July 14, 2005

Landmark sign soon to be history

July 14, 2005

In 1951, Dean Weller was 26 years old, married with two children and had only $12,000 to replace a cornfield with a motel he couldn't get a loan to build.

But even though it would cost a hefty $1,700, a big, bright beacon for De Soto's El Rancho Motel was a must.

"It was a lot of money, for me, but it was a necessary thing," Weller said. "It had to light up after dark and let the people know there was a motel there."

So Weller designed and commissioned a signage confection, each side decorated with a hand-painted siesta scene and covered in neon. Glass tubes once formed a cursive "El Rancho," and large, shadowbox letters spelled out "motel."

More than 50 years later, nearly all the neon is gone, and the sign's days as a signal for weary motorists are over -- new owners renamed the place at 32550 Lexington Ave. and plan to tear down the El Rancho sign. But a small band of sign lovers hopes to find the means of restoring the sign to its original glowing glory.

Sign maker's 'treasure trove'

Kevin McQuigg, owner of Santa Fe Signs & Neon in Overland Park, was commissioned to install the new De Soto Inn sign, which he described as a "no-brainer" model.

When he traveled to De Soto to install the new sign, McQuigg was blown away by the old one.

"It's all broken now, but when I walked up to it I thought 'Good Lord,'" McQuigg said. "It's kind of a treasure trove for everything that goes into signs.

"It's got hand-painted graphics on there; it's got channeled letters. The word 'motel' is channeled letters, and everything else -- everything -- has got neon in it."

McQuigg said if he had the money, he would restore the sign himself.

However, he estimated getting the sign down, transporting it to his shop, repainting the background and replacing all the original neon -- possibly 200 feet of it -- would cost at least $2,000.

Jim Seelen of Shawnee, a prolific roadside photographer whose favorite subjects include neon motel signs, recently salvaged another metro area sign and donated it to the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

He agreed that saving the El Rancho sign, too, would be a huge undertaking but hoped it could be done.

"It's an exceptionally neat sign," Seelen said. "It's one of my favorites ... and I've photographed about every motel sign on this side of the Mississippi."

Seelen recently rescued from a scrap heap a neon sign that once lit up the Sky Vu Motel, located along Highway 40 in Kansas City, Mo. United Sign of Kansas City, Mo., helped facilitate that sign's rehabilitation and delivery to the museum.

Seelen hauled the Sky Vu sign home in the back of his pickup and figures he could do the same for the El Rancho sign -- if the owners are willing to part with it and if there's a way to get it down.

The sign is about 8 feet long and sits atop two heavy-duty metal poles, high above the De Soto Inn roofline.

"Up there on the poles it looks like a relatively big sign," McQuigg said. "If you pull it down on ground level, that sign is huge."

Storied past

Weller, who still lives in De Soto, designed the El Rancho Motel and built it himself between 1951 and 1953.

As rooms were finished, traffic from the then-booming Sunflower Ordnance Plant filled them up. The income helped Weller keep going and eventually complete the project.

Weller said the sign went up about a year after he started the motel.

Its motif matches that of the motel -- southwestern, popular at the time and the choice of Weller and his wife, Delores.

Weller designed the sign and hired a sign maker from Kansas City to create it from his drawings. The sign maker charged him $1,700, collected $1,500 and erected the sign but skipped town before he got it wired.

"I guess he was kind of a, a shyster," Weller said. "Before he got it done, he owed so many people that he left the country. But what I got was worth what I paid him already."

Another sign maker from Bonner Springs finished up the job, and Weller never heard from the "shyster" again.

A new era

Weller sold the El Rancho in 1980, and it has since been through several owners.

"In the beginning it was a nice looking place. I was really proud of it," Weller said. "But let's face it, it's 54 years old, and time has a way of making things look old."

Raj Patel and his wife, Nayana, recently purchased the El Rancho. After renaming it De Soto Inn, the couple began refurbishing the motel's five kitchenettes, five single rooms and sole double room.

The Patels, who also own the Super 8 of De Soto with several other relatives, hope to give the old El Rancho a new image. Since that includes a new name, a new sign was erected and the old El Rancho sign must come down, they said.

Weller, who raised three children at the El Rancho, said the sign had nostalgic value for him and that he liked the idea of saving it. But he admitted it just wouldn't be practical.

"I'd kinda like to have it, but what would I do with it?" Weller said.

American Sign Museum founder Tod Swormstedt said the El Rancho specimen could be a nice addition to the museum's collection.

By preserving and displaying signs, the museum aims to inform and educate people about the history of the sign industry and its contribution to commerce and the American landscape.

Old signs like that of the El Rancho are special because they represent an important era of roadside Americana, Swormstedt said.

Swormstedt said motel chains only became the norm during the past few decades. Before the chain phenomenon, name recognition wasn't an attraction for travelers, but a motel's outward appearance was -- something Weller must have known when he splurged for his sign.

"Prior to that, all of them were one-of-a-kind mom-and-pop motels, and it was very important to have a good sign," Swormstedt said. "If the sign looked modern and new and clean and all that, that was a sign of a good motel."

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