Several Route 66 advocates are upset the City of Lincoln, Illinois, is storing the historic Tropics Dining Room sign outdoors and exposed to the weather at a yard-waste disposal facility after it was taken down last year.
Readers emailed me photographs of the Tropics sign laying on its side at the waste facility. From one of the images, it seems one side of the sign is nominally raised off the ground. Regardless, it’s exposed to the wind, rain and sun.
When it was announced in April 2014 the sign would be taken down by the city after the property changed hands, the Lincoln Daily News reported it would be “carefully stored so as to prevent any further damage.” It’s safe to say the methods used above are not what preservationists had in mind.
The Lincoln Courier newspaper also posted photos of the forlorn sign on its Facebook page. Comments about the sign’s storage are overwhelmingly negative.
According to detailed article in the Herald-News, the treasurer of the Illinois Route 66 Association requested at a city council committee meeting Monday the sign be donated to the association so it would be given to the City of Pontiac, Illinois, and restored as much as possible at no cost to Lincoln.
The newspaper published the comments of association treasurer Marty Blitstein:
“I didn’t know until today that anyone knew where the Tropics sign was. The Herald newspaper put in an article that the Tropics sign is in the landfill, in the dump. Uncovered, laying on its side, rotting away. It’s in a Route 66 community. This is our ‘Oscar.’ You can’t do this. I’m prepared to make an offer tonight that the City, which owns the sign and the land that it’s in—I can’t go in there and take the sign—I make you a proposal that the City give the sign to the Route 66 Association of Illinois. I’m the treasurer. We’ll pick it up in a professional manner, bring it to Pontiac and restore it as best we can at no cost to the City at all. […]”
“ […] I will personally pay for it or the Association will pay for it, take it out of the land fill and bring it back to Pontiac and see what we can do. There are two parts. One piece that’s still original and one piece that’s broke apart. The deal is that the big part that’s original, we get to keep it. Pontiac’s got the old K-Mart that went out of business, and we’re building a ‘neon park.’ We currently have six neon signs from the state of Illinois to go in it. It’s not done yet. We’ll put this sign up there, whether it’s lit with neon or not. We’ll put it up with spotlights, paint it, put a sign up for The Tropics and the City of Lincoln to give you credit for that. The part that’s apart, we’ll put it back together as best we can, put it on truck back to Lincoln and give it to the Mill at no cost to the City of Lincoln.”
Blitstein told me by phone he was “in tears” when he learned of how the sign was being stored.
Blitstein said the news of the sign’s condition wouldn’t be well-received by the Route 66 community and that travelers might skip Lincoln in the wake of the news.
“There will be people who won’t come to this town and stay in hotels, won’t eat, won’t shop, no gas, because you said you don’t want the sign by putting in the landfill.”
Alderman Joni Tibbs urged Blitstein’s proposal be put before the full city council for approval.
Alderman Michelle Bauer acknowledged the sign probably should have been stored in an upright position instead of lying flat. But she pushed back on a few of the allegations:
“[…B]ased on conversations that were had with [Street Superintendent Walt Landers] and his crew was that in the removal of the sign… that no one had been taking care it for the past 20-some years, and that they had to remove some parts and there were pigeons and there was damage already to the sign, and that was the biggest part of our hesitation in the restoration process was the finances and what was it going to take for us as the City to do it internally.
“But I go back to the fact that we did not put it in a ‘landfill.’ It is being stored where we have storage, but it is not in the landfill for the purposes of being landfill property. […] I think that we Alderman would never put a piece of history in a landfill […] I want a clarification on our end that we didn’t put it in the ‘dump’ to dump it. That was never the intention of the City.”
City Administrator Clay Johnson said Streets Department tried to put the sign indoors but had no facility big enough.
Landers told the committee and audience the city was “very careful” in the sign’s initial removal and “did not damage it any worse than it was.” He said one side of the sign already was off during a Route 66 gathering in September, and it’s in the same condition now. In the meantime, Landers said he could cover the sign until the committee’s next meeting April 14 to discuss the proposal.
As usual, one of the big issues is lack of money. The City of Lincoln does want to restore the Tropics sign so it can eventually be put back on display, but it doesn’t have the money. Blitstein said he was unsure how much it would cost to restore the sign, but surmised money could be raised through historic grants or online fundraising.
According to the Legends of America, The Tropics opened in 1950. Original owner Vince Schwenoha once lived in California and was inspired by its palm trees when he dreamed up of his business in Illinois. The restaurant went through a spate of closings and reopenings after Interstate 55 bypassed the town.
UPDATE: The Lincoln Courier had a few more details about the sign’s poor state at the time it was taken down:
According to Landers the sign weighed nearly 4,200 pounds when taken down, hundreds of pounds of that being bird nesting materials.
“The side was dismantled to aid in cleaning it out. After 50 years of birds living in the sign there was literally six to eight inches of nesting and waste material in it.”
“That in itself poses a health hazard to people being around it, by inhaling. We had to be very careful with how we cleaned it out.”
(Top image of The Tropics sign in 2006 by jason tinkey via Flickr)