New look for Ann Arbor icon: Morgan & York owners repair and re-paint landmark Ann Arbor sign
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
According to the owners, the original sign - one of the most distinctive in the city for decades - was rusting through and the neon was falling apart, creating unsafe conditions on windy days.
“The I-beams that hold the sign up were being compromised,” co-owner Tom York said. “We patched the top up, and then the neon was so old that it would fall off when it got windy and you would have one or two feet pieces of glass flying around.”
The history of the sign is straightforward: When the Big Ten Market opened in 1940, there was a simple large trapezoid erected to entice passers by to check out the family grocery store at 1928 Packard.
Then when Eugene Towner and Edward Sharon bought the store in 1953, Sharon used his Lansing connections to get a liquor license. To advertise the addition, a large arrow with “LIQUOR” written in neon was added to the sign and an Ann Arbor landmark was born.
But today's zoning regulations ensure that the sign cannot be replicated.
That's led to the landmark also finding itself in controversy. In 2005, Big Ten Party store co-owner Matthew Morgan wrote an open letter to customers in which he revealed that the City of Ann Arbor had been pressuring the owners to take down the sign “for years” and another attempt was in the works.
Morgan and co-owner Tom York appealed the city's initial ruling that they would have to tear down the sign and replace it with a seven-foot miniature version. They were successful, and landmark sign still stands at its original height of 25 feet.
That history means the most recent work wasn't done without consideration.
York said the sign was no longer viable in its current state because there was a big hole in the top where it had rusted through and there was water leaking down throughout the sign.
York and Morgan bought the store in 2001 and changed the name to Morgan & York in 2006. Morgan said neighbors have been complimenting them on the re-done sign.
“People seem to like it. There haven’t been any negative reactions we’ve heard,” he said. “Some people are confused because they think the sign used to say ‘Big Ten Party,’ but it never did.”
Leisa Thompson | Ann Arbor News
“The plan was to preserve the original neon, but the lowest estimate we got was $38,000,” he said. “The contractors were all hesitant to work on it because of the rust on the interior I-beams.”
Garrett Scott runs an antique book store and sublets from Morgan and York. He said the new sign is better than having the old one torn down.
“It’s a big part of how I tell people where I’m located when they come to find me,” he said. “Without the sign we’re just another strip mall.”
York said the long-term play is still to restore the neon, but for now Ann Arbor will have to get used to the new blue, white, and safe sign.