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Route 66 News

Storage of Tropics sign irks Route 66 advocates

Tropics sign, 2006

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.

Tropics Sign 2-small - Copy

Tropics Sign-landfill-small - Copy

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.

Have you seen The Tropics sign lately? The City has it stored, in pieces, laying on the ground at the landfill….

Posted by Lincoln Courier Media on Tuesday, March 24, 2015

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)

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5 thoughts on “Storage of Tropics sign irks Route 66 advocates

  1. Scott McCoy

    I’ve dug on this and here are some answers from my sources:

    • To clarify, the sign is not placed in “the dump.” It’s on city-owned land that used to be a landfill, but is now just city land. City lands are used to store stuff, which is normal.

    • The city placed the sign here on purpose, for storage. It’s not a good storage area, in my opinion, and it should have been covered in a tarp, but it was placed here to be stored.

    • The pieces you see were removed on purpose by the city in order to clean out the bird nests and other debris inside of the sign. Only one side was removed for this purpose. However, the removed materials were not placed back on the sign, which just invites more critters in it and further exposes it to the outside elements.

    It seems this is about Lincoln’s incompetence in how to store an item such as this, and their total lack of vision or appreciation for what they have in Route 66. This will be (already is) a public relations nightmare for Lincoln, Illinois. It’s already being talked about all around the county and overseas. This is not how you want to promote your city to the Route 66 tourists and promoters.

  2. Mark Buric

    This seems to be typical of small town, red America. There’s typically no money for their history or their culture, despite this being a tourist town in which Lincoln benefits. And this sign is a whopper going back to the roots of “Coonhound” Johnny and being such an icon on Route 66 all those years. But they’ll want a grant or some sort of donation to do anything about it – you know somebody elses (tax)money because they’re too proud to have any type of burden on their own locals to preserve their own culture… no room to store this sign in town the size of Lincoln? WHAT A JOKE! I’ve seen this type of stuff before and I could give other examples and frankly it’s disgusting.

    1. Jamaica Lyons

      Your right about the space to store it. There are plenty city building here in Lincoln and a few owned by the county. There are also 2 building inside the city landfill. They should have reorganized a building or whatever they had to do to prioritize a historical landmark. You don’t ask a doctor to fix your plumbing so why did the city ask or allow the STREET AND ALLEY department to even attempt to clean or restore the sign?

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