My name is Matt Ames and I’ve always been a fan of old signage. It was probably sometime in the 1980s when I first noticed the Commodore Inn sign on Patterson AVE in Roanoke, Virginia.
Since that time I’ve been in love with it, along with hundreds of other Roanokers. When I first posted photographs from this project to Facebook it was wonderful to see the interest from numerous people in the sign and what was going to happen to it.
The Commodore Inn was a real Roanoke landmark, a simple business with a bar and a few booths and the sign stood above it with a grand dignity. My grandfather, a local plasterer for 70 years, used to go there with his brothers after work in the 40s and 50s. And I’m sure many Roanokers have similar connections.
Luckily, somehow, the Commodore Inn sign has survived. Many beautiful old neon signs have met the scrap heap over the years and there are very few left in Roanoke. The sign itself is awesome, and made especially for that building and that business, before an age of mass produced, plastic, back-lit signs. When you get close to it you can see the craftsmanship, the cuts, the rivets, the bold letters, the handsome colors. It’s a great sign!
I’ve been involved in numerous Roanoke historical activities in the past few years, mostly working under the title of Philosophy INC. Recently my historically based designs were chosen by Roanoke City's Arts Commission to go on solar powered trash binds placed throughout the city.
This past summer I worked with a local Girl Scot troop to clean up Old Lick Cemetery and we researched and documented the history of the cemetery and presented this information at last year’s Festival in the Park. Also, during the summer I led an investigation of Campbell Ave in Roanoke, one of Roanoke’s most historical streets. The information we discovered, historical, botanical, photographic, was then put on display at Community High’s Liminal Gallery. Restoring and preserving the Commodore Inn sign seemed like a logical next step for me. I love Roanoke and if I can have a hand in preserving something as cool as the Commodore Inn sign I’d be proud.
When I initially approached the building owner about the sign he told me the present building resident had planned on painting over it, as they already had a sign on the side of the building. I told him I wanted to have it restored and to find a public home for it. He liked my idea and so I and couple of friends went down one day with a truck and took it down.
Once I had the sign in my possession, everyone I talked to told me Jack Fralin of Best Bet Arts was the man. I’ve known Jack a long time but I had no idea he’d had a hand in restoring so many signs downtown: The Patrick Henry sign, the Coca Cola sign across from the Taubman, Big Lick Junction and literally many, many more.
He’s been painting signs for over 30 years and has an understanding of what it takes to restore these old signs that is unparalleled. So, essentially you have me, the guy who’s worked on a bunch of local historical projects and Jack, the guy who can restore the sign. I think it’s a good mix.
Where Are We Now?
Currently we’ve taken the sign down, moved it to Jack’s studio, removed the old sockets, bought new neon sockets, had really professional stickers printed and we recently presented our project at PROject proJECT.
We’ve estimated that it’ll cost between $6000 and $10000 for parts, labor, installation and rewards. We decided to shy on the low end of this because $10000 seems like an awful lot of money and evidently times are tough.
I’ve also met with Downtown Roanoke INC and they have expressed an interest in the project. The next step in terms of finding a home for it is to approach building owners to see if they’d be interested in having the Commodore Inn sign attached to their building. And this is going to be the most complicated part of the project but one I’m ready to tackle. Roanoke has some great signage downtown, the H & C sign, the Dr. Pepper sign, Arzu’s neon sign, the signs Jack painted and of course in the distance there’s the Star. The Commodore Inn sign would be a great fit downtown. We could preserve a great piece of Roanoke’s pop and blue collar legacy and add something wonderful to our downtown.
Risks and challenges
The biggest risk is that none of the building owners or business we approach to put the sign up will be interested. I've spoken with Downtown Roanoke INC and they were excited about the project and felt that I would be able to find interest in the Market area. But this is obviously the biggest hurdle. However, I know a lot of people in Roanoke and the sign's owner is on the city council, so I feel that I have as good a chance as anyone at finding a public home for it, which is the ultimate goal. If we do fail at finding a public home for it I believe we could at the very least donate to a local history museum.
As far as fixing it goes, Jack Fralin has been working with signs for 30 years, so I don't think that's going to be a problem at all. He is extremely interested in seeing this work and has a neon partner that is also really excited. If you drive downtown Roanoke, just about every painted sign was done by Jack: The Patrick Henry, numerous Coca Cola signs around the Market area, Big Lick Junction and many more. There's no better person in Roanoke to handle fixing the sign.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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