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If Only San Francisco’s Neon Signs Could Live Forever

San Francisco Ferry Building (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

When an animated, neon-lit sign showing donuts falling into a cup of coffee was removed from San Francisco’s Mission Street, local photographers Randall Ann Homan and Al Barna were inspired to take action. The couple set about documenting the city’s remaining neon signs in all their bright, blinking glory, creating a lovely and comprehensive record of the city’s changing landscape. The resulting book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons, includes 12 neon signs that have since been taken down, along with forgotten signs whose ghostly white tubes remain permanently unlit. We spoke with Randall and Al about this project and the enduring, romantic appeal of neon. 

Why do you think neon is so evocative?

The appeal of neon at night is the atmosphere it creates, where even a quiet street can be turned into a movie set. The defined color of the neon tube combined with the surrounding glow creates an ambient light that is full of promise and allure. A neon sign is the alchemy of elements; gas, electricity and mercury. The vintage fonts and design of these signs are an integral part of San Francisco’s creative and cultural heritage.

Pop’s Bar at 2800 24th Street (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon) 

Can you tell us about some of San Franciscos most unique neon signs?

The 500 Club has the biggest neon martini glass in town. The Port of San Francisco sign is the widest neon sign, it stretches across either side of the clock tower on the Ferry Building. The Castro Theatre has a towering vertical blade sign, and combined with the elaborate neon marquee it might be the heaviest neon sign.

How did the design of the signs evolve over time?

As neon tube benders became more skilled, the designs of neon signs became more elaborate and sophisticated, such as the curves and zigzags of the Art Deco era. Eventually neon signs became so popular that they had to compete with each other. Oversized clowns, elephants, and other figurative designs dominated the neon landscape. 

Books of typefaces were created specifically for neon signage in the early days of corporate design. But small local neon shops created original fonts by hand, unique to individual signs.


St. Francis Soda Fountain at 2801 24th Street. (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)


Night Cap Bar at 699 O’Farrell Street (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

Which neighborhood in San Francisco has the highest concentration of remaining signs?

Grant Ave in Chinatown has the most legacy neon signs per block. This is probably because Chinatown has never experienced a major “redevelopment”phase. Sadly, only two or three of these signs are still illuminated. 

Is their loss something that is universally mourned in SF?

People mourn the loss of legacy neon signs, and also the small businesses they represent, which are being squeezed out by gentrification. A neon sign often marks traditional gathering places in neighborhoods, where generations of city residents congregate to watch movies, drink martinis, buy raviolis, eat fish, and even park cars.

A neon sign for viewing Alcatraz (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

(Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

What was the genesis of the SF Neon project?

We thought a book was the best way to document the city’s legacy of neon signs, that are disappearing at an alarming rate. When the Hunt’s Donuts sign was removed from the Mission district, we realized that the best neon signs in San Francisco would not be around forever. That sign was the perfect example of neon design creativity and humor: Donuts falling from the sky to splash into a waiting cup of coffee. Luckily, there is a twin to this sign that still exists in the Marina district. 

What are the logistics of powering a neon sign?

The typical red-orange color is created by neon gas in a clear tube. All other colors are usually created by Argon gas in phosphorescent-coated tubes. High quality transformers and ceramic housings for the end of the neon tubes help to keep the neon sign glowing reliably. A classic neon sign is mounted on a sheet metal housing or “tin can.” But neon can be mounted directly on the side of a building or in a window. 

(Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

The Greyhound bus sign which has since been removed. (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

Is there any downside to having a neon sign on your property?

We don’t think there is a downside. Anyone who maintains or restores a legacy neon sign instantly becomes a neighborhood hero, and contributes to the aesthetic vitality of the commercial street. Also, a building is considered more valuable for resale if it has a large sign attached. The new owners won’t have to go through the expensive permitting process to put up a new sign. 

Allstar Donuts at 2095 Chestnut Street (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

Van Ness Laundromat (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)


(Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)

The  Deovlet Furniture sign at Pine and Franklin being removed during construction. (Photo: Courtesy SF Neon)