The Loews hotel chain has tinkered for 15 years to keep the neon PSFS sign aglow on Philadelphia's skyline, but officials said Tuesday they believed the time had come to do away with the old and bring in the new.
Arguing that the 83-year-old sign has become too costly and burdensome to maintain, Loews representatives asked the Philadelphia Historical Commission for permission to replace the neon tubes and transformers of the signature red sign with LED lights.
The commission's architecture committee voted unanimously against the idea.
The 27-foot sign, atop the skyline since its installation in 1932 by the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, the committee argued, is a historic artifact that can, and should, be fixed.
"The standards are very clear that it's better to repair than replace," said committee member Suzanne Pentz.
"The neon is its own artifact," preservation planner Randal Baron said.
The PSFS matter came during the fifth hour of a busy meeting during which the committee also voted against a high-profile plan for Center City's nearly demolished 1920s-era Boyd movie palace.
That proposal, by Jim Pearlstein's Pearl Properties, seeks to build an apartment tower and street-level stores where the Boyd formerly occupied a large section of Chestnut Street between 19th and 20th Streets.
The committee expressed a number of concerns, including what materials might be used on new facades and whether to install a glass enclosure leading into an arcade entryway beneath the theater's original marquee.
Both proposals were scheduled to come before the full commission for a vote June 12. Property owners can appeal adverse decisions to the Department of Licenses and Inspections Review Board.
Where the Boyd for years has been a lightning rod of debate and scuttled redevelopment plans as preservationists squared off with developers, the PSFS sign proposal shed light on the fragile goodwill that has kept the unmistakable and enduring landmark visible on the city's skyline.
Before Loews moved into the dormant PSFS building in 1999, the sign had been dark for a decade, noted consultant Cindy Hamilton, representing the hotel.
Loews has no obligation to retain the sign, let alone keep it lit, despite its prominence and the company's decision to include it prominently on the hotel's Philadelphia website.
The company stitched together a fix here and there for years, until deciding it did not want to spend a hefty sum to rebuild it as a high-wattage neon structure.
Now, amid increasingly scarce suppliers of neon, the hotelier said it was eager for an alternative to keep the sign lit.
Officials said it would be cheaper and easier to maintain the PSFS sign if it were replaced by a system of lower-wattage LED lights, as was done years ago on Boathouse Row.
The popularity of LED has contributed to a dearth of once-prevalent neon, said Danny Smith, the hotel's director of engineering.
Where there used to be many suppliers, there now is only one for the PSFS moniker, said Patrick Hoban, of Philadelphia Sign Co., whose employees scale and sometimes dangle from the letters to conduct tricky maintenance work.
"It's getting harder to get neon components," Hoban said.
"It takes me weeks to get the neon to come in," Smith added.
Len Davidson, who refurbishes neon signs, did not buy the scarcity argument. Neon for his projects, he said, has been readily available.
"This sign is a great example of demolition by neglect," Davidson said. "The sign has been compromised terribly."