272. The Made in Oregon Soap Opera. 
Oct 9, 2009 at 10:21PM

I love the neon Made in Oregon sign located at the west end of the Burnside Bridge heading into downtown Portland. I think my first trip to Portland was in 2000 and although I had no idea that it was actually an ad for the Made in Oregon store—I had assumed that it was a pride in being from Oregon thing—i just loved the retro design and scale. Fast forward nine years later and I'm back in Portland for a trip and seeing the sign as I ride in still gives me a nice feeling. This time around however, I thought I would do a little research and find out more about my favorite sign. And boy am I glad that I did. There's been a regular design, political, corporate, grassroots soap opera going on in the Rose City over the last 10 months and I had no idea 'my sign' was at the center of it all.

First a short history lesson.

The Made in Oregon sign hasn't always been the Made in Oregon sign. From Wikipedia: "The original sign was installed in 1940 and said “White Satin Sugar” inside an outline of the state. In 1959 a white stag was added to the top, and the sign was changed to “Home of White Stag Sportswear”, a former apparel manufacturer based in Portland. In 1997 the sign consisted of the outline of Oregon, with a leaping deer at the top and "Made in Oregon" as the text to promote products that originate in the state. The sign has become one of the identifying landmarks of Portland. In 1978, the sign was even designated as a City of Portland Historic Landmark. (More on just what that means in a little bit.)

The original White Satin Sugar sign & White Stag Sportswear Revision:


The original sign manufacturer interestingly enough is still in business. Ramsay Signs was established in 1911 by A.G. Ramsay who was also the President of the Brilliant Neon Corporation. According to their site, Ramsay and Brilliant merged in 1933 to become Ramsay Signs, Inc and is still one of the leading sign companies in the Northwest. To give you an idea of how important this sign is to the company - it is still featured prominently on their website's homepage.

The building this sign sits on top of has had a few tenants over the years, White Stag Sportswear of course being one of them. Originally it was designed in 1907 as a manufacturing and warehouse facility by the Willamette Tent and Awning Company. But in September 2006 The University of Oregon accepted the keys to the building from long-time owner, the Naito Family. The university (based in Eugene not Portland - this is important to remember for later too) planned on renovating the landmark building and consolidating their Portland branches into the location by January 2008. It didn't take the University of Oregon too long after that to propose changing the sign to read “University of Oregon.” The official pre-application request was submitted to the city on December 9th. And that's when all hell broke loose.

The Proposal Design and Notice:


So at this point residents began to freak out a little bit. Over 68 years the sign went from being a mere marketing billboard to being a historical and beloved landmark. In the winter they even go through the trouble of giving the White Stag a red nose and transform it into Rudolph for the Holiday Season. Think of it as the Northwest's version of the Welcome to Vegas sign. It's prominently used in advertising for the region and is a very recognizable welcome to visitors. Since the sign was designated a historical landmark by the City of Portland, any changes to it would need to be approved by the Landmark Commission, thus the notice by the Bureau of Development Services you see above.

Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard, Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Nick Fish then co-sponsored an ordinance Leonard introduced that would seize control of the sign away from the university and give it to Portland, therefore preserving the sign’s design. As it stood at that time only the deer, size of the board, and the typeface used were protected by the historical designation and precedent was set in 1997 when the commission passed the change to Made In Oregon from White Stag Sportswear by "recognizing that the sign's ultimate survival depended on its commercial viability." There was a similar uproar about changing the sign back then too, and although the commission passed the change they did rule that, "any future alterations cannot significantly change the sign’s historic appearance."

Since moving into the building The University of Oregon was actually paying to maintain and keep the sign lit, although it was doing nothing to promote the institution at this point and was still owned by the sign manufacturer, Ramsay Signs. By submitting the proposal the university was merely offering to buy the sign and use it to promote their school and by doing so possibly saving the sign from being taken down. It's easy to understand why they would want to change the sign. Several months earlier, Ramsay Signs President Darryl Paulsen wrote an editorial in the Oregonian expressing his perspective on the matter and here is an excerpt:

"By accepting the UO's offer, we can guarantee the sign's presence on Portland's skyline for years to come, and the UO will not only keep the sign lit, but also will keep it in good repair. The UO's desire to put its own mark on the iconic sign is in keeping with the spirit and history of the neighborhood. The university's presence in Portland predates that of the sign by more than 50 years. I can think of no better way to use the sign than to recognize the identity of an institution woven into the fabric of this city and this state. The UO itself is every bit the icon for the state that the "Made in Oregon" sign is for the city. Together, the sign and the UO will form an even greater icon, one that honors the past while pointing toward the future."

The residents of Portland were less understanding and many joined several grassroots efforts to stop the proposal from going forward. There's even a Facebook group (Keep the Made in Oregon Sign the Way It Is) dedicated to the effort - which I just joined as the 10,877th member.  When the proposal was heard in March, the city planners ruled against the new design stating, "that there would be too many letters, and that the changes would make the sign inconsistent with its historical character." But the proposal just shined more light on the possibility of change and things continued to get more interesting as spring progressed. By early April it was a mess.

Politics As Usual:

After the University's proposal, Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard tried to use the City's power to condemn a property to ensure that the council could control what it said. However, the university would have had to give up their right to the property on which they had a lease-purchase option signed with Ramsay Signs. University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer however was set on changing the sign and a stalemate ensued. Not deterred, Leonard then tried to use eminent domain to take over the property by offering to pay fair market value for the sign, estimated at roughly $500,000 plus maintenance fees and a small lease of the space it takes up on the roof of the building. Acknowledging that this latest move was fairly aggressive, City Attorney Linda Meng said in an article here that "...the use of eminent domain is warranted if the taking serves a public purpose. "It's not your ordinary condemnation, but the ordinance does a good job explaining what the public purpose is," she said. Frohnmayer responded to this threat with a threat of his own, suggesting that the school just let the sign go dark. Things were getting ugly.

How did the public respond to this? Well, once outraged that the sign was going to change at all they were now more than a little irritated that the city was going to spend over half a million dollars to keep the sign using somewhat dubious means during a severe budget and economic crisis. That led to a division in the hearts and minds of the residents. How much was the sign worth to people in hard cash? Could changing the sign in effect save the sign and was this better than totally losing it?

While all this was going on, a certain institution of higher learning was getting increasingly infuriated at the notion of seeing the words University of Oregon in lights across the most identifiable landmark in the area. If you are unfamiliar with Portland you may not know too much about Portland State University. PSU is actually the college that is most identifiable with downtown Portland as the University of Oregon is based in Eugene, (now with the aforementioned branch downtown), and Oregon State is based in Corvallis. PSU President Wim Wiewel criticized the proposal in a Business Journal story, saying the sign shouldn’t “promote any particular product or institution.” In the same story, Ty Kovatch, chief of staff to City Commissioner Randy Leonard summed up PSU's perspective by stating, “What if PSU or Oregon State (University) came into Eugene and ... put a big PSU or OSU sign there?” he said. “I don’t think the citizens of Eugene would view that as any more appropriate as citizens would view a University of Oregon sign here.”

A failed, unofficial proposal by Ramsay Signs:


A complicated issue for sure. So in April there was another meeting after the initial proposal was refused in March and there was an actual compromise made between the city, the University of Oregon and the sign owner - still at this point, Ramsay Signs. As reported in the Business Journal on April 8th of this year, the parties agreed that the new sign will "instead just include the word Oregon in the main section. A banner below the single word will read Old Town - Portland on a green background. Also, the city of Portland will have the first option to buy the sign if the university leaves the building." Of course, the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission would still have to approve the new design which was submitted soon thereafter, sometime in June or July. The University of Oregon would use surrounding features to connect the word Oregon with the O logo of the university as seen in the composite below.

The New Proposed Design (You can see an animation in the update far below.)

So, everyone's happy right? Well everyone except the people who wanted to leave the sign alone, those that felt too much money was being wasted by the political back and forth, those who didn't care about the sign at all, and those embarrassed by how everyone was acting - which was a large swath of the public. People fighting the change figured if it was worth fighting for, an icon if you will, then any change to the sign was wrong and the process wasted valuable resources. The whole situation became a joke of sorts spawning all kinds of humorous versions of the sign mocking the entire process, like this one below found here:


This little issue continued through September via a few proposal extensions — the Oregon design being roughly approved since July but being held up on some related issues involving signage on nearby buildings and parking lot ownership. But by the end of September the university had changed their mind about wanting to use the sign. As reported in the Oregon Daily Emerald, University Provost Jim Bean said, “The financial situation has changed since we began this discussion" after announcing to the city that the university will not renew its lease on the sign. And just two days ago (October the 8th) Ramsay Signs officially withdrew their application leaving the sign under their ownership. (You can follow the full convoluted timeline here.)

So the sign purists seemed to have won, except it's only a temporary victory. The ultimate fate of the sign and it's Made in Oregon design rests on the market. News Channel 8 in Portland has quoted Darrell Paulson (still President of Ramsay Signs) as putting the sign back up for sale. "They will now start knocking on doors to see who might like to see their name in lights" and that he "...expects there are several large companies that would like to have their name on the sign -- and sponsor the red-nosed reindeer that’s brought a little cheer to Portland’s holiday season for many years." Oh boy. To maintain the sign for a month would cost a new owner only about $1500 and these funds would prevent the company from simply turning the sign off, which as of late last month was highly likely. Selling the sign to a new company would ignite the whole process all over again pitting corporations and the government and the residents and their respective interests all against each other. But for the time being the sign remains lit and looking just as it has since I first visited Portland and for that I'm thankful.

Enjoy it while you can:

Update on Oct 10, 2009 at 01:35AM by Registered Commenterjj
The Animation for the Failed 'Oregon' Design:
For the full effect turn up your speakers and enjoy.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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