The forgotten designer behind Seattle’s most iconic neon signs

Feb 5, 2020, 8:51 AM | Updated: Feb 6, 2020, 6:51 am
If there’s a more iconic neon sign in Seattle than the Elephant Car Wash, no one’s sure what it would be. It was designed in the 1950s by Bea Haverfield. (Feliks Banel) Bea Haverfield’s sketch of the iconic Chubby & Tubby variety store neon that she designed. (Bea Haverfield courtesy of Kathleen Wolff) DETS Toyland in Bellevue once had neon designed by Bea Haverfield. (Bea Haverfield courtesy of Kathleen Wolff) Greer & Thomas Lumber was a fixture in Seattle beginning in the early 1950s; Bea Haverfield design their neon. (Bea Haverfield courtesy of Kathleen Wolff) Bea Haverfield’s sketch of the iconic Chubby & Tubby variety store neon that she designed. (Bea Haverfield courtesy of Kathleen Wolff)

Local collector, historian and author Brad Holden recently uncovered the history of a forgotten designer of iconic neon signs and wrote about it in a cover story for the Seattle Times Pacific Magazine. The lushly-illustrated story blew up on social media and got a big response from thousands of people.

Why does Brad Holden think people around here love neon signs so much?

“They’re just such a familiar sight in the urban landscape,” Holden said by phone earlier this week. “When you go out, you notice these signs right away, they grab your attention, especially the neon ones because they’re so bright. They’re so colorful and artistic and they’re iconic, too.”

Neon seems to go straight from the eyes to grab a hold of hearts and minds in the dark and rainy Pacific Northwest, especially when the sign is for a local business.

“Dick’s Hamburgers, for instance,” Holden said, name-checking the Seattle area drive-in chain that just celebrated its 66th anniversary. “If I just mention the words you can picture the sign in your head because we’ve all seen it so many times. And definitely the Elephant Car Wash sign. I think it’s just an important part of our cultural heritage.”

Anyone who thinks of neon signs as a part of  “our cultural heritage” is OK by me.

Brad Holden says that in his travels around local estate sales where he searches for pieces of Northwest history, he stumbled across a reference to a woman named Bea Haverfield, and the fact that she designed neon signs in the Northwest in the 1950s. An online searching connected him with Bea’s grandson, an artist named Eli Wolff.

Eli Wolff, Brad Holden says, told him, “the person you really want to talk to is my mother.”

Kathleen Wolff is Bea Haverfield’s daughter.

“I knew she made the Chubby & Tubby [variety store] sign, and that’s where we went on Rainier Avenue to get our Christmas trees,” Wolff said in Seattle earlier this week. “I still have really, really good memories of doing that, and going ‘Wow, my mom made that sign!’”

Kathleen Wolff lives in Anacortes, and was in Seattle visiting her artist son Eli. She says her mom never made a fuss about her sign career, but was always very creative and did all kinds of fun mom (and later grandma) things, such as making sure there were bunny footprints around the house on Easter morning, and encouraging her kids and grandkids to draw and paint.

Wolff is incredibly proud of what her mom did with her mom’s first husband Elden Fisler, and the couple’s daughter — Kathleen’s half-sister Barbara — as part of a company called Campbell Neon. It was rare for a woman to work in any industry in the early 1950s, and especially neon.

Bea Haverfield, Kathleen Wolff says, designed signs for Dick’s Drive-In, Ivar’s, the Cinerama theater, Boehm’s Candies, and all kinds of other local businesses.

But Kathleen Wolff feels a special connection to the Elephant Car Wash sign on Denny Way, particularly as gets closer to it on the way into town.

“I start looking for it practically when I’m still on the Aurora Bridge,” Wolff said. “And by the time I get far enough down there to see it, I feel like my whole body lights up with a big smile inside.”

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, there’s mom,’” Wolff said.

Bea Haverfield passed away in 1996 at age 83, and her eldest daughter and fellow neon designer Barbara died very young in a violent crime in 1975.

Perhaps the coolest and most poignant fact revealed by Brad Holden’s Seattle Times article is the backstory about four little sheet metal elephants that were first attached to bottom of the Elephant Car Wash sign when it went on display in 1956.

“I’m glad you brought that up because that’s probably the part that tickles me the most,” Kathleen Wolff said. “And hardly anybody notices that they’re there unless you tell them.”

Those pieces of metal, says Wolff, are a mother’s tribute to her kids.

“When you’re under the sign, there’s four little sheet metal elephants, two with pink bows between their ears and two with blue bows,” Wolff said. “That’s Barbara, me, Bob and Greg, our four siblings. She got to do that for the fun of it to honor us.”

On a troubling note, on a visit to the Elephant Car Wash sign Tuesday night, one of the tiny elephants appears to be missing.

Nonetheless, given that so much has changed in Seattle in the past few decades, what does Kathleen Wolff think it says that so many of Bea Haverfield’s neon sign designs remain on duty?

“It says that she did a good job,” Wolff said. “I mean, she made them eye-catching enough and you know, maybe some of it’s what the businesses are that make some of them have better longevity. But I think people feel the humor in her art, and that keeps them being attractive so long.”

In the wake of Brad Holden’s article, there has been much fretting about the future of the Elephant Car Wash on Denny Way, particularly in light of the way that neighborhood is changing, and because the sign appears to need some serious maintenance. Much of the neon is dark, and it no longer rotates.

Mike Hakala is a spokesperson for the family-owned company, founded by Bob Haney (who is still involved in the business), and operating more than a dozen car washes in the Puget Sound area. KIRO Radio reached Hakala on Tuesday, and he responded to questions about the possible sale of the Denny Way location and the future of the iconic sign via an emailed statement.

We do not own the land, but do not know of it being for sale. We just renegotiated a new [one-year] lease last month. We are evaluating the long-term viability of this business in Seattle based on the current climate towards small businesses in the city. It appears that this business does not align with the global desires of the city government, based on restrictions, requirements, and taxes/fees/costs imposed upon it and similar business types in the city. Should we decide in the future to relocate our business elsewhere, the future of the sign will be evaluated at that time.

Until then, be sure and appreciate this part of Seattle’s “cultural heritage” – and a powerful symbol of a once-forgotten neon designer who was also a mom and a grandma – each and every time you drive by.

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The forgotten designer behind Seattle’s most iconic neon signs