PSFS sign to flip from neon to LED

For 83 years the PSFS sign has glowed above 12th and Market streets in red neon, but we’ll soon see those letters in a new light.

On Friday the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved the conversion of the two PSFS signs that help define the city’s skyline to a Light Emitting Diodes (LED) system.

Rather than restore the temperamental and aged neon system, the building’s owner, Loews Philadelphia Hotel, is proposing LEDs designed to match the color and intensity of the original neon. They argued that their intent was to modernize the sign’s light source, conserve energy, reduce the frequency of outages and maintenance calls, and keep the historic sign illuminated.

Back in May the commission’s architectural committee did not support the proposal, in part because of concerns about the way the light would glow in the 26-foot high letters’ enamel channels.

Since then, however, Loews and its consultant, Philadelphia Sign Company, revised the design and installed a new lighting mockup. The LED lighting box would have two openings in the front to mimic the dual neon tubes original to the PSFS sign, and two openings on the sides to allowing the letters to glow.

Philadelphia Sign Company’s Pat Hoban agreed that in the first mockup “there wasn’t enough light splashing into the channel itself.”

Dominique Hawkins was one of two on the commission to defend the neon and vote against the proposed alteration. “Neon is intrinsic to the original character of the building,” she said.

Architects George Howe and William Lescaze designed the two signs as an integral part of their PSFS building, pioneering the use of graphic illuminated signage and the International Style. So important is the PSFS as a work of architecture, it was listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic places at just 36 years old. It has spent more of its life as a landmark than not.

Though the sign is both a character-defining feature of the building and our skyline, a majority of commissioners were persuaded that the new lighting system would not be distinguishable from the ground. It is a compromise they were willing to accept.

“This is part of the skyline, not part of the streetscape,” said commissioner Bob Thomas. “I’m really amenable because this is meant to be seen from a great distance.”

The installation of LED lights means the colors could be changed, but Loews said it was not its intention to program the lights unless the city requested it to do so. The commission realizes it would not be able to regulate this sort of color changes.

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