Wednesday, May 25, 2022
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Kansas City’s most iconic signs, from Western Auto to Town Topic | KCUR 89.3


This story was first published in KCUR’s Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

If you think the Western Auto sign hovers above Kansas City’s Crossroads district like some delightful, less-evil version of the Eye of Sauron, you’re… not wrong. The multi-story landmark can be seen from every angle, its glow blinking off windows along Oak Street and windshields on Interstate Highway 35. In a word: iconic.

Though the sign and its looping arrow have long been staples of our (underrated) cityscape, the Kansas City aesthetic has a history studded with symbolic insignia — some of which occupy lesser-known spaces. Big or small, it’s all significant.

Ultimately, we’re a city of artists, and along with our growing population of murals, our signs — neon or not — give the city its glowing personality.

Western Auto

Believe it or not, a Coca-Cola sign once sat atop the Western Auto building.

Having procured the drink’s recipe in 1892, Asa Griggs Candler — Georgia business tycoon — needed a good distribution spot. He selected the strange, triangular plot of land on Grand Boulevard. The building itself was designed by architect Arthur Tufts.

After noticing the demand for Ford Model T parts, a bookkeeper named George Pepperdine leased the fourth floor of the building as a corporate headquarters for Western Auto in 1928.

“By June 1952, the firm had invested over $300,000 in renovations and additions, including a new 30-ton, 70-by-73-foot sign displaying its name in massive red letters encircled by an arrow,” reads a 2020 article written by Michael Wells.

In 2000, after Western Auto had been bought out by Sears — which was, in turn, consumed by Advance Auto Parts — the sign was switched off. It remained that way until condo renovations took place in the coming years, and the Western Auto Lofts homeowners’ association deciding to fund the great relighting.

Thanks to 2,500 incandescent bulbs and 1,000 feet of neon tubing, the Western Auto sign was relit on July 13, 2018 — Friday the 13th. Talk about a bright idea.

Abdiana

Abdiana sign in Kansas City

Though Abdiana Properties now owns the building, the original sign read “Firestone,” the letters mimicking a fiery blaze.

Not to be outdone, the Firestone Building and its giant blue “Abdiana” sign can be seen a block north of Western Auto on Grand. They just don’t make fonts like they used to.

Though Abdiana Properties now owns the building, the original sign read “Firestone,” the letters mimicking a fiery blaze.

Constructed in 1916 for the popular tire and rubber company, a few of the original sign’s letters are visible through the windows of the terra cotta-veneered structure today. Inside, you can find an event space available to rent.

18th and Vine

18th and Vine

Shutterstock

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Shutterstock

The 18th & Vine sign — which depicts a treble clef symbol in place of an ampersand — is a testament to the area’s musical history.

Known for jazz, soul food, the Gem Theater and multiple museums, the Historic 18th and Vine district characterizes Black art and cultural richness in Kansas City. And the “18th & Vine” sign — which depicts a treble clef symbol in place of an ampersand — is a testament to the area’s musical history.

The colorful sign sits above a building that once operated as Hotel “Street.” According to the American Jazz Museum, “Reuben Street’s hotel was the most luxurious hotel available to African American travelers” to Kansas City.

Hotel Street welcomed Negro League baseball players and jazz entertainers including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who “could all enjoy the fine dining experience denied to them at all-white establishments elsewhere in the city.”

Today, visitors to the district can see originals and replicas of some of 18th and Vine’s historic signs inside the American Jazz Museum.

Seiden’s Furs

Seiden's Furs - Chris Murphy.jpg

Much of downtown Kansas City lends itself to nostalgia — including the Seiden’s Furs sign at 9th and Broadway Boulevard.

We’ve written about it before but thought it deserved to be mentioned again — the mid-century, pale green sign at 10th and Broadway is just that photogenic.

According to Missouri Preservation, the brick building that was home to Seiden’s Furs was first built as a drugstore in 1874. It’s also the oldest existing structure in Kansas City’s Central Business district, as shown in a 1980 architectural survey.

Though we’re glad faux fur is now in style, we can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to pass beneath the neon Seiden’s sign and its matching orange fox. Much of downtown Kansas City lends itself to nostalgia — to a sense of the past, even as similar structures receive modern touches.

Now, the Seiden’s Furs building has been designated by the city as a dangerous property, mostly due to a roof collapse in 2021. Artists hope to someday renovate it into affordable studio space.

The Milk Jug

An image of The Milk Jug sign located in Independence, Missouri.

The Milk Jug sign located in Independence, Missouri, exemplifies the evolution of marketing and art.

This eye-catching sign on a busy road in Independence, Missouri, once designated a small shop or corner store. It emphasizes a bottle of milk on top and bold, white letters below.

The original Milk Jug is no longer in existence, however much we wish it was. Luckily, local photographers who have an eye for sentimentality have made sure its image lives on.

And like Seiden’s Furs, the Milk Jug sign is a testament to a Kansas City we rarely see these days. It exemplifies the evolution of marketing and art, and the attention paid to mom-and-pop-style businesses. Check it out for yourself if you’re ever in the area.

Hotel President & Drum Room

The Drum Room

The Drum Room in Power & Light’s famed Hotel President once showcased big-name entertainers, including Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline.

You’re in for a treat if you decide to stay in Power & Light’s famed Hotel President, whose white rooftop sign is also a part of the Kansas City skyline.

The hotel was built in 1926 by Frank Alonzo Dudley, a lawyer and hotelier with businesses in Niagara Falls, New York. The Drum Room, the President’s stunning retro lounge and restaurant, has been in operation off and on since 1928, showcasing big-name entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Patsy Cline.

Though the President closed for renovations in 1980 and again in 2017 — at one point being saved from the brink of razing — it’s always held onto its signature 1940s style. And the Drum Room sign, donned by curling red and yellow letters and drum kit, is an ode to an era. Look for it at the corner of Baltimore and 14th Street.

The Roasterie

The Roasterie

Ever wondered why The Roasterie sports a giant airplane on the roof of its Southwest Boulevard location? It all goes back to air-roasted coffee.

Ahh. Air-roasted coffee. So that’s why The Roasterie sports a giant airplane atop its Southwest Boulevard factory-café location. She goes by Betty. (The airplane.)

Caffeine fiends should have no problem locating the Roasterie, as Betty’s wings stretch high above buildings and streets, peeping out from behind a tree near the narrow café building and its attached drive thru.

One of the Roasterie’s objectives is sustainability, which is why they thoroughly invest in mutually beneficial relationships with growers, plus practice water and soil conservation.

Find more photos of Betty the airplane on Instagram.

Town Topic

Image of a "Town-Topic Hamburgers" neon sign.

JoLynne Martinez

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Flickr

Town Topic is a local late-night staple, considered by many to be a Kansas City rite of passage.

Some say eating the sacred food of Town Topic is a Kansas City rite of passage. In other words, you know you’re a local when you’ve stood in a late-night line at the burger joint.

Arguably the quintessential Kansas City burger house, Town Topic and its glittering set of fin-like signs have led many a hungry bar-goer to salvation. We can all thank Claude Sparks for opening the first diner downtown in 1937, where he sold hamburgers for just five cents each.

One of the current iterations on Broadway is open 24/7, meaning you can pacify your burger cravings at any hour. There are two other locations — one at 1900 Baltimore and the other in Mission, Kansas.

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