The preservation of a once-covered Adohr Milk Farms neon sign along Route 66 in Pasadena, California, became complicated in recent months because of a city’s inexplicable decision and the tangled history of the family behind the long-defunct milk business.
For those who missed the previous reporting, Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken restaurant was doing a face-lift on a building at 800 Arroyo Parkway (aka Route 66) last summer when it uncovered an original Adohr Milk Farms facade, along with intact neon tubes. The dairy was founded by Merritt and Rhoda Rindge Adamson in 1916 in nearby Tarzana, California.
Nate Rogers of Vice Media Group published a terrific article this week about the sign and developments since that have muddled its preservation efforts. I commend it to your attention.
Here are some of the highlights:
— Through a public records request, Vice found a sign installation permit from the city that indicates the neon sign was installed in 1934 (the document is too hard to read to be certain). That would make the Adohr Milk Farms sign one of the oldest intact neon signs in existence on its original building.
— The City of Pasadena stated, inexplicably, it doesn’t believe the sign is historic. “The City has reviewed the facts it has available and does not believe it is historic,” a city media representative told Vice via email. “The [property owner] is not required to do anything with the sign.” It gave no reason for the decision. No one with a background in historic preservation agrees with that assessment. Regardless, the city’s stance makes it tougher to preserve the sign for future generations.
— Howlin’ Ray’s founder Johnny Ray Zone, once enthusiastic about preserving the sign and incorporating it into his restaurant, started to get cold feet when he found Adohr Milk Farms co-founder Rhoda Rindge Adamson was among those who allegedly tried to keep Black singer Nat King Cole — he of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” fame — from moving into the all-white Hancock Park neighborhood.
We’ll let Vice explain what happened:
A coalition of homeowners in the area was aghast and put together the Hancock Park Property Owners Association to challenge the legal ability of the Cole family to break the neighborhood covenant that was put into place in 1920, which barred “undesirables” like Black and Jewish people from living there, according to Daniel Mark Epstein’s 1999 biography Nat King Cole. (“If I see anybody undesirable coming into this neighborhood, I’ll be the first to complain,” Cole is reported to have told the association in a meeting.)
As it turned out, a Supreme Court decision in a case from a few months prior—Shelley v. Kraemer—had ruled these covenants unconstitutional, so the Coles were there to stay. That didn’t stop them from having to endure horrific abuse regardless; at various points after moving in, their family dog was poisoned to death, a gunshot was fired through a window, and someone burned the n-word into their front lawn. Nat’s oldest daughter, Carol “Cookie” Cole, remembered that last attack lingering in the grass long after the incident, according to Will Friedwald’s new biography Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole. “The shadow of that word was just always there,” she said.
Zone confessed he wanted to remove the sign after learning that and replace it with a Nat King Cole mural.
The local historic tour company, Esotouric, wrote a piece casting some doubt on Adamson’s involvement in the effort to drive out Cole. “But the accusation doesn’t seem likely to have appeared out of thin air, either,” Rogers wrote for Vice, noting such actions wouldn’t have been out of character for her and other family members.
Though the Black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel was the only news outlet that initially reported the claims about Adamson in 1948, it’s also not hard to imagine other White-owned newspapers shying away from the story.
It appears Zone, along with the local NAACP chapter, for now have advocated keeping the sign there. Zone said he wants to add an on-site portrait of Cole that acknowledges the tangled alleged history of him and the Adamson family.