One of the best-loved relics of Philadelphia's recent past, the neon Boot & Saddle sign on South Broad Street, is glowing again.
The sign came out with all its lights blazing Saturday night, nearly eight months after it was taken down from the facade of the music club at Ellsworth Street. The stainless steel structure, which is literally shaped like a giant cowboy boot, and attached to the building by a horse saddle, has been completely renovated and outfitted with new neon tubes, said Len Davidson, a neon expert who supervised the repairs.
Now lit in brilliant hues of pink, blue, green and yellow, with white letters, the two-story-tall sign can be seen from blocks away. While the goal was to be faithful to the original design, Davidson said some guesswork was required. "Ten percent, we had to improvise," he said.
In many ways, the newly lighted sign is another marker signaling the transformation of South Philadelphia, which has seen an influx of new homeowners, restaurants, and shops.
When it was founded as a country music bar in 1950 by Pete Del Borrello, Boot & Saddle catered to workers from the Navy Yard. But as South Philadelphia's shipbuilding operations were shut down in the '90s, that clientele dwindled. The building sat empty for 17 years until the group behind Union Transfer resurrected the club in 2013 as an indie music venue.
Not only did the company keep the bar's name, it retained the distinctive sign, even though the neon lights weren't functional and paint was peeling from its stainless steel box. As part of a zoning agreement with the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, Union Transfer pledged to renovate the sign, which has become a local landmark. Last spring, Davidson arranged for sign maker Domenic Urbani, owner of Urban Neon, to carry out the repairs.
Though the Boot & Saddle sign was created to advertise the bar, many believe its unique design qualifies it as a form of folk art. Davidson, who has made a career rescuing Philadelphia's unwanted neon signs, said he considers it one of the best because the form is such a clear expression of the bar's name.
On one side, the word boot runs vertically down the boot, bar is inscribed in the toe, and saddle is spelled out over the saddle. (It's reversed on the other.)The sign was designed and built by Angelo Colavita, who operated a sign shop at 15th and Alter until his retirement three years ago. Now 88, he still lives in the neighborhood.
"It's fantastic that they brought it back to the original look," said his son, Angelo Colavita Jr.
His father's company, Colonial Signs, produced dozens of neon signs around the region, including the little deer that is the symbol of Bambi Cleaners, also on South Broad.
"When the old boy makes something, he makes it to last forever," said Angelo Jr. Then, quoting his father, who was standing next to the phone, he said, "I'm going to drop dead, but that sign will still be there."