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Sign of the times in Pittsburgh

| Thursday, July 6, 2006

Bayer's neon billboard atop Duquesne Heights is the Charlie Brown of local landmarks.

It's likeable in a hang-dog sort of way, but not really memorable or exciting. It's just kind of up there, with little fanfare and a faded paint job that defies almost anyone to make out "P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H," allegedly written large on the sign.

"If you never went to town, you'd never know it was there," said Frank Voch, 67, who owns the Village Dairy on Shiloh Street in Mt. Washington, on the other side of Coal Hill, a short drive from the Duquesne Heights section where the sign dwells. "I don't ever associate that with Mt. Washington."

But surely it must be a civic landmark, much the same way as the Hollywood sign that looks out over Los Angeles, right?

"As far as I'm aware, it's not," said Frank Stroker III, staff assistant of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Residents and local historians might not be lining up to take credit for the sign, but this is invariably true: The Bayer sign is the one landmark first-time Pittsburgh visitors are guaranteed to see when they attend the All-Star Game at PNC Park on Tuesday -- and that's because you can't miss it. It's 30 1/2 feet high and 226 1/2 feet wide. It's as reliable as the moon in Pittsburgh at night, flashing a red neon clock, blinking a round Bayer logo and dutifully relaying nonprofits' messages.

An estimated 250,000 people see the sign each day, according to the sign's owner, Lamar Advertising.

"I think it's extremely cool," said Mark A. Ryan, spokesman for Bayer, which has leased the sign since 1993. The German company has its North American headquarters, with 1,400 employees, straddled between Robinson and North Fayette in the South Hills.

Ryan said the company looked at modernizing the sign, making it display messages during the day, but was told it would require a complete "structural change" -- basically replacing the sign.

"It works," Ryan said. So, there are no plans to change anything.

Mark Stroup, 44, of Friendship, thinks "it could use a coat of paint, or some sprucing up," but he said there are plenty of reasons for Pittsburghers to be proud of the sign.

Stroup, who founded the Pittsburgh Signs Project, documents local signs as a kind of social record of Pittsburgh's commercial past. Whenever a sign is so large that whole communities can see it, "it serves a positive function," he said. The sign helps ground Pittsburgh as a distinctive, permanent place, making Pittsburghers feel at home, Stroup said.

As a bonus, "neon is perennial," said Stroup, about a kitschy cachet the sign has acquired in old age. And if you don't like that, the sign's got major tread on the tires, and "people always admire things that have been there for awhile," Stroup said.

Ken Freeman, a Lamar account executive, said records place the sign's origin somewhere around 1928. Lamar acquired the sign in 1999.

Freeman said the sign intermittently would go for years with nobody using it. Those that have leased the billboard, memorably, through the decades: Iron City Beer in the late 1950s, and aluminum giant Alcoa for 25 years, from 1967-92.

Freeman believes it's one of the largest neon signs in the country. Sino Land Co.'s Hong Kong sign that covers 54,175 square feet is the world's largest, according to Guinness World Records.

The Pittsburgh sign contains a little more than one mile of neon tubing laid on galvanized steel that got its daytime quilt-like paint job in 1977, Freeman said. The sign used to be all white, but people thought it would look better painted in different colors, he said.

Freeman shrugs off the sign's aged appearance.

You can still make out "P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G-H," if you stare at it long enough, he said.

Additional Information:


PNC Park

Click here to learn more about PNC Park.

Woman of words

Karen L. Wirth is the woman behind Pittsburgh's sign.

Wirth, 48, a secretary in Bayer's communications department, has programmed the sign for about two years from a computer room that is not much bigger than a closet. The sign room has a chair, desk, computer and dictionary.

Obviously, there are some Pittsburghers who think pretty highly of the landmark, because marriage proposal requests have poured in for the sign through the years, ones that Bayer doesn't accommodate, Wirth said.

The rules for the sign are pretty strict, she said.

Only nonprofits get messages displayed, she said. The sign can handle six lines with 20 characters per line -- but three lines are preferable.

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