Flipping the Switch on the Chase Hotel Sign
The past hundred years have been exciting ones for St. Louis, and the landmark Chase Hotel has been there for almost every one of them. The 9-story, 500-room Chase was built in 1922 by St. Louis businessman Chase Ulman at the corner of Lindell and Kingshighway, right along Route 66 (although the alignment of the Mother Road changed over time). Seven years later, Sam Koplar built the majestic 28-story Park Plaza Hotel next to the Chase, and the two hotels merged in 1947.
In 1940, seven years before the merger, the Chase underwent a comprehensive renovation that included construction of the building’s famous rooftop Zodiac Room and the installation of a seven-foot-tall neon marquee spelling out CHASE in blue letters. This sign shone brightly for decades as the hotel below hosted presidents, celebrities, the 1956 Miss America pageant, and weekly pro wrestling matches in the 1960s and 1970s. But in 1982, Koplar sold his Park Plaza Hotel building, which was then converted to apartments. Suffering from dwindling business and a location viewed as inconvenient by downtown St. Louis visitors, the Chase closed in 1989, and the bright blue marquee went dark.
In 1991, as a new owner began to renovate the Chase Hotel, the Missouri Historical Society acquired the CHASE letters into our collections due to their significance to the city’s history, but they were a bit worse for wear. Much of the neon tubing was missing, and the letters had some serious corrosion issues, particularly on the frames of the porcelain-enameled steel that had been exposed to rain and snowstorms for decades. Over the years, various steel patches had been applied to cover damages and losses in the letters. (Such blemishes would have been invisible to the naked eye when the letters were in their original home, high above street level.)
Although we were pleased to have this artifact in our collections, the resources to bring it back to its former glory just weren't available . . . until recently. Thanks to the generous support of participants in a crowd-funding campaign and one donor in particular, the Chase sign finally got the face-lift it deserved so it could be fully lit and on display in our Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis exhibit. It’s important to note that rather than “restoring” the Chase sign (which would involve stripping the original paint and materials and replacing them with modern look-alikes), the Chase sign was “conserved.” This means that although everything was cleaned and stabilized, the artifact’s original finishes, from metal patches applied over the years to the original enamel coating (and even some rain streaks), were left as is. That's because these features and finishes are important parts of the sign’s history.
Over the course of several weeks, a contractor specializing in neon-sign repair worked under the supervision of our collections team to conserve the seven-foot-tall letters and replace the neon tubing in them so the sign could shine once again. Although the remaining original neon tubing couldn't be salvaged, it still served a useful purpose: Chemical residue remaining inside the tubes allowed us to precisely match the shade of blue neon used in the sign's heyday and recreate the same color in the new neon tubes.
Hundreds of hours and thousands of generously donated dollars have brought the Chase sign back to life. Thanks to this community's support, it's now bathing the Route 66 gallery in its bright blue light, so come see it on display! You can’t miss it—just look for the seven-foot-tall blue letters.
Click through the gallery below for even more images from the conservation of the historic Chase Hotel sign!
—Sam Moore, Online Communications Coordinator