Copal Grill neon sign resurfaces on Craigslist

Jason Spears with Copal Grill Neon Sign he purchased off Craigslist this month.
Jason Spears with Copal Grill Neon Sign he purchased off Craigslist this month. Christopher Lawing

A piece of Charlotte history missing since 2009 re-emerged from the shadows this month in an unexpected place: Craigslist.

Listed for sale among the used cars, worn baby clothes and unneeded bunk beds was the blue and white neon sign that stood in front of the Copal Grill on Wilkinson Boulevard. The 68-year-old sign – believed to be the area’s first freestanding neon advertisement – had been missing from the public eye since 2009, when the classic roadside diner was torn down to make way for road improvements.

The neon signs of Charlotte often go into the Dumpster, because they are not old enough to seem worth anything to anybody.

Tom Hanchett, a historian with the Levine Museum of the New South

Professional “junk picker” Jason Spears of Lexington was the buyer, though he doesn’t know what to do with one of the region’s clunkier cultural artifacts: It’s 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide. He’s hoping a museum will eventually want it. As for what he paid, Spears prefers not to say.

Tom Hanchett, historian with the Levine Museum of the New South, says he’s surprised the sign ended up on Craigslist, but that’s not the worst fate he could imagine.

“The neon signs of Charlotte often go into the Dumpster, because they are not old enough to seem worth anything to anybody,” said Hanchett, who applauds Spears for caring enough about the sign to bring it home.

“The fact that stuff like this ends up on Craigslist tells you how fast American culture is changing, and it’s changing faster in Charlotte than anywhere else. … We’re an extremely prosperous city in terms of money for redevelopment, and that means people are busily tearing down what was built 20 or 30 years ago.”

Coincidentally, the Levine Museum stepped up in 2006 to save another among the city’s famous restaurant signs. The sign for the Athens restaurant remains in storage at the museum, awaiting some future plan for display. The popular 24-hour restaurant was torn down in 2006 to make room for expansion at Central Piedmont Community College.

A sign’s rich history

Historians and collectors alike value the Copal sign but for different reasons. The sign, promising steaks and chops, is a classic example of Americana from the region’s 1940s roadside diner boom. It’s also a pop culture curiosity for being used in a 1995 Hootie and the Blowfish video (“Let Her Cry”) and a movie, “The Killing Jar.”

Kay Peninger, executive director of the Charlotte Museum of History, has expressed an interest, noting such signs are remnants of businesses that played key roles in the city’s economic, cultural or civil rights history. However, she says much would have to be explored before something as big as a diner sign becomes part of the museum’s artifact collection.

Historians say they knew the sign was in storage somewhere, though its location was a mystery. Spears says he bought it from a grandson of the sign’s original maker who had been holding the sign on his lot at the Petrie Sign Installation company since 2009. The grill had been closed since 2008.

Spears says he’d never heard of the Copal Grill when he bought the sign in Charlotte the second week of August. He says he spotted the sign just minutes after it was listed for sale and arranged a visit on the same day.

There was a problem, however.

“I just thought it would be a cool old sign, but it was just too big. I told the guy I didn’t want it,” said Spears, recalling he asked the seller not to be angry about the wasted time. “It was only after he told me it had been in a Hootie and the Blowfish video that I got interested.”

Spears got even more interested when the guy lowered the price.

Minutes later, the sign and a box of the accompanying neon glass tubes were loaded on the back of Spears’ Toyota Tundra pickup, headed to Lexington. “It stuck out about 2 feet off the truck,” he said. “It rode around in my truck for a week before I could get family and friends to help me unload it.”

Spears’ wife, Ashley, is the one who started asking questions, eventually discovering the sign was “all over the Internet.” The couple have since become experts on its story.

For 61 years, the Copal Grill at 5923 Wilkinson Blvd. attracted a cross section of society, including attorneys, construction crews, truckers and families. It was especially popular with people headed to or returning from the airport, and with truckers in the days when Wilkinson Boulevard (U.S. 74) was a main transportation artery, before Interstate 85.

The sign is considered a rare example of freestanding commercial neon from the mid 20th century, standing like a beacon on the edge of the city in its earliest years.

Other saved signs

The city’s fast-paced redevelopment has resulted in public tugs of war over several other vintage signs in recent years. Among the success stories: The JFG Coffee sign (dating to 1964), which was removed from the Interstate 277 loop in 2009 and later re-erected at the NC Music Factory; and the 1929 Ratcliffe’s Flowers sign that was put back up on South Tryon Street after its building was moved 15 years ago.

There’s a little bit of local history behind each and every one of these signs. They have back stories of creative, small-business owners taking advantage of our new auto-oriented world.

Diane Althouse, who was key figure in the Save our Signs effort

A handful of similar historic signs remain in storage, having been saved by Historic Charlotte’s Save our Signs project. The initiative aimed to save key signs in the face of a redevelopment boom.

Signs protected include the late 1940s “Jesus Saves” message from atop west Charlotte’s Cannon Cathedral; the Eastland Mall logo signs; and the Amity Gardens Mall sign (now the site of Walmart) that once towered over Independence Boulevard.

Also in storage is the sign for Queens Park Drive-in (and later Queen Park Cinema) that stood atop a two-story bobby pin on South Boulevard from 1962 to 2014. It was taken down by D.H. Griffin Construction Co. as part of the Lynx light rail development. Griffin officials said the upper part remains in storage, awaiting word from the property owner on a future use.

Conspicuously missing from the list is the giant white cup that fronted the Coffee Cup restaurant near Morehead Street, a much-beloved soul food restaurant that opened in 1946. It was considered historically significant because its clientele was a mix of races in an era when blacks and whites rarely rubbed elbows in public.

The restaurant closed in 2007, and the sign disappeared shortly before the place was torn down in 2009.

“Everybody wants to know what happened to the Coffee Cup sign,” said Diane Althouse, who was a key figure in the Save our Signs effort. “It’s a visually cool sign, yes, but there’s also a mystery around it, because it disappeared in the night. And we’d all love to know where it is.”

Like Hanchett, Althouse was surprised the Copal Grill sign ended up on Craigslist. But she also appreciates that it eventually will be in the hands of someone who will value it.

“There’s a little bit of local history behind each and every one of these signs,” Althouse said. “They have back stories of creative, small-business owners taking advantage of our new auto-oriented world. …

“They are nostalgic and make you think of simpler times when people would see a crazy sign and pull off the road there.”

Possible future use

Historians say it’s tough for such signs to find a new life.

Althouse says there was talk at one time about some of the signs being displayed along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, as historical markers dedicated to the city’s rich business history.

Peninger at the Charlotte Museum of History says another idea is an outdoor sculpture garden, where children could wander among the preserved signs and read details about the city’s business history.

The Copal Grill sign would belong in such a garden, she says, alongside the Coffee Cup sign, if it’s ever found. Future additions could include the sign from Price’s Chicken Coop and the Open Kitchen should they ever become available.

“When that JFG Coffee sign was coming down from along Interstate 277, there was a huge outpouring of people who did not want it to go away,” Peninger says.

“They had made connection to its appearance on the Charlotte skyline. It had become reflective of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. We just never know what is going to become historic and what will catch the imagination of the public.”

Other saved signs

▪ The “Jesus Saves” sign from west Charlotte’s Cannon Cathedral was removed for safekeeping when that building was torn down in 2010. The sign dates to the late 1940s.

▪ The Amity Gardens Shopping Center sign was saved in 2010 when that site on Independence Boulevard was cleared to make room for a Walmart.

▪ The sign for Queens Park Drive-in (and later Queen Park Cinema) on South Boulevard (from 1962 to 2014) is being stored at D.H. Griffin Construction Co. The company is holding onto it until the property owner comes up with a use.

▪ The Reid’s Fine Foods neon sign created in 1942 was restored in 2011 and remounted at the store’s new location in the Myers Park neighborhood. A relighting of the refurbished sign was held the same weekend as the refurbished JFG Coffee sign was turned on again at its new location adjacent to the NC Music Factory.

▪ The 1929 Ratcliffe’s Flowers sign on 400 block of South Tryon Street was in jeopardy after the flower shop was moved and renovated. It was restored and eventually moved to a pole on The Green next to the building in 2012.

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