Civic Pharmacy sign could soon shine again, community association says

One of Ottawa's few remaining examples of futuristic 'Googie' architecture has likely been saved from the scrap heap, according to the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association.

Agreement reached with owner to preserve rare piece of 'Googie' architecture

Two different views of the Civic Hospital sign, currently half-buried by an orange tarp covering the building at Carling and Holland avenues where it's affixed, on Feb. 19, 2018. The Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association says it's received assurances that the sign — a rare example of "Googie" architecture in Ottawa — will not be demolished. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

It once spun and shone at the intersection of Carling and Holland avenues.

Now, after falling into disrepair — and facing potential destruction— the blocky, pastel-coloured Civic Pharmacy sign could soon have a new life, thanks to the efforts of the local community association.

"It's probably one of the most prominent features of the neighbourhood," said Gregg Kricorissian, who sits on the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association's heritage committee.

"I've lived here for almost 36 years, and I see it every day."

Sign erected in 1960

The sign has stood at Carling and Holland ever since the former pharmacy opened there in 1960.

However, more than a year ago, the building was put up for sale — and the community association, Kricorissian said, began to worry about the fate of the sign, which had already begun to shed pieces of metal.

Eventually, Kricorissian said, they were able to track down the new owner and make their pitch for saving it.

"I think we sort of attached a value to it. And as a result, they decided to keep the sign as a permanent part of the building and incorporate it with the renovation," he said.

"And in the end, we ended up saving the sign."

Gregg Kricorissian is with the Civic Hospital Neighbourhood Association's heritage committee and was instrumental in the efforts to safeguard the six-decade-old sign. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

'Googie' architecture

The sign is an example of what's known as "Googie" architecture — a flashy mid-20th century style that relies heavily on steel and neon.

It's often described as having a "futuristic" or "space-age" aesthetic, and would be familiar to anyone who's seen The Jetsons or visited Las Vegas.

"We don't have many of these cool, kind of retro, nostalgic, authentic signs left," said Andrew King, an Ottawa heritage advocate, who's written about the sign's significance and called for its preservation.

King once lived a few blocks away from the Civic Pharmacy building. He designed T-shirts adorned with the sign to bring attention to it — and help it avoid the fate of other historic signs like the Mellos marquee in the ByWard Market.

"So often, these owners of buildings — they're not doing it out of spite or hatred for it. They just don't realize the importance that these kind of cool, old signs have to the people of Ottawa," King said.

"[This] is a huge win. And I'm just thrilled that I'm not the only one that's looking out for these signs."

This neon Las Vegas sign is a prime example of "Googie" architecture, which flourished in the 1960s and had an aesthetic often described as futuristic. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press)

'A real touchstone'

Last month, Kricorissian said, the new owners told the community association they'd foot the bill to preserve the sign, which currently sits half-buried under an orange tarp as the building undergoes renovations.

It means something. It's the name of the neighbourhood.- Gregg Kricorissian

Kricorissian said the new sign could potentially light up once again, using cheaper LED lights instead of neon. (It likely will never rotate, he added, as even in the 1960s the spinning mechanism proved difficult to maintain.)

The restoration work would also likely be carried out by the same Ottawa company, Ray Neon Signs, that designed it six decades ago.

Kricorissian said there's no indication yet when that work would get underway, but he's confident the owners want the Civic Pharmacy sign to be part of the building's new look.

"It means something. It's the name of the neighbourhood. It's the name of the hospital," Kricorissian said.

"It would've been pretty sad [if it disappeared]. Not the end of the world, but I think the neighbourhood would've lost a real touchstone."

A man walks past the Civic Pharmacy building on Carling Avenue in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2018. The local community association says it's received assurances that the building's well-known sign will not be removed during renovations. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)