There’s something uniquely attractive about old neon signs. Even when they’re rusty and busted, they retain a spirit of Americana that you just don’t come across very often outside of ‘50s diners and tattoo parlors. When they’re kept in working order, neon signs grab you by the eyeballs and make sure you know that roast beef sandwiches are delicious and that Jesus cares about you.
When they’re left hanging off derelict buildings after a business closes, there’s always some subtle hope among the community that someone will come along and restore it. The Mecca of neon signs, Las Vegas, even has a museum dedicated to them. A lot of the signs around Tacoma are so old that they’d need complete rewiring with new tubes to be up and running again. With changes in technology, some of the old colors aren’t even made anymore. Neon signage is a dying art and refurbishing old signs can be prohibitively expensive.
In spite of their difficult nature, Tacoma has managed to hold onto a handful of neon signs from the early to mid 20th century. The story and history of neon signs in Tacoma is actually far deeper and more interesting than you might think. If you’re curious, check out Tacoma History’s Neon WarsParts One and Two. The following is a collection of my favorites from around Tacoma but it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
Flying Boots Cafe (614 S 38th St)
Despite its dwindling glow, this is one of the most decorative signs on the list. The Flying Boots Cafe has been around since the late ‘30s but went through some rough change in 2013. It was closed for a period of time during which the bar was vandalized and much of the original memorabilia was stolen. It reopened in 2014 though and you can still find all the same locals that have been going there for years.
Hans’s Place (6405 S Tacoma Way)
This is the original sign from the 1940s but was recently restored. The owners went to great lengths to keep it as close to the original as possible, both for code purposes as well as tradition. The bar was first opened by a Mr. Hanson—hence the Hans—but changed hands to its current owner, Connie Peterson in 1979. This is a great little bar that’s locally famous for its fried chicken. As such, it’s one of the best smelling bars anywhere around here.
The Chieftain (3015 S Tacoma Way)
OK, I know this isn’t technically a neon sign but given the overall style and time period, I felt it was worth making an exception for. The restaurant had been around since the ‘40s and lived a few different lives before becoming The Chieftain in 1971. It’s closed now and the sign has seen better days but the family members of the original owner are currently trying to lease the property. Despite the broken down cars littering the parking lot, it’s still a noteworthy historical piece of the old US 99 highway.
Lucky Silver Tavern (2605 S Tacoma Way)
Less than a quarter mile up the road from The Chieftain is another fantastic local bar. It’s been family owned for the last 50 years along with the neighboring Marcia’s Silver Spoon Cafe. Like a lot of the other bars and taverns still holding onto their historical neon signs, the Lucky Silver is a working class joint. The bartender is friendly and the customers are as unpretentious as it gets.
Frisko Freeze (1201 Division Ave)
The sign out in front of Frisko Freeze is special among this collection in that it’s not a solitary remnant of days gone by; the entire place is a snapshot of the 1950s. It’s also the only spot in this collection that’s listed in the Tacoma Register of Historic Places. Fun Fact; the founder, Perry Smith, chose the name after listening to a baseball game between the Seattle Rainiers and the “Frisco” Seals (the Giants didn’t move to SF until 1958). Smith decided to change the spelling, apparently just for kicks.
Elephant Car Wash (2501 Pacific Ave)
The enormous pink elephants at the corner of Pacific and 25th seem less like something you’d find at a car wash and more like the centerpiece of a flamboyant carnival ride. Nevertheless, they’ve been a glowing beacon of Tacoma’s downtown since 1963. The original location in Seattle was the first automatic car wash in Washington and all their locations use reclaimed water to reduce environmental impact.
Brown and Haley Candy Co (110 E 26th St)
This chocolate scented neon sign has sadly been relegated to advertising “Alm Ro” on one side and “ond ca” on the other. Like many of its cousins around town though, it’s been around for 80+ years. The building it’s attached to is much older and was actually a shoe factory before it became the home of Almond Roca. The factory doesn’t do tours but the gift shop does sell their full line of sweets including discounted “mess-up” candies.
U-Betcha Pub (4302 Pacific Ave)
Long-time regulars will remember this as the 43rd St. Pub. The sign was modified a few years ago when a new owner took over and renamed it U Betcha. The majority of it though, including the clock and friendly “TIME TO STOP” reminder, is original. Before it was a bar it was actually a gas station and before that, a barber shop.