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All Over The Map: Belltown group says keep elephant sign where it is

The Elephant Super Car Wash neon sign was donated to MOHAI. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

The notion of the Elephant Car Wash neon sign being carted off to a museum is great news for some, but is not sitting well with a group of Belltown activists.

Steve Hall, land use planner for Friends of Historic Belltown, says the colorful electric sign is a big part of the visual identity of the Denny Way corridor, especially with so much recent new construction in that part of Seattle.

Denny Way through that part of downtown “has very few visually interesting aspects,” Seattle born and raised Hall told KIRO Radio on Thursday, ”other than [the Elephant sign] and the Space Needle.”

The iconic pink electric rotating pachyderm, first installed at the now closed and graffiti-covered car wash at Denny and Aurora in 1956, is officially headed to MOHAI. Staff there told KIRO Radio that the sign will likely be taken down later this month, and will then head to local company Western Neon for restoration.

The restoration work will be funded, in part, by the car wash company, whose other locations remain in operation, and who donated the jumbo sign to MOHAI. A smaller non-rotating elephant sign at the south side of the lot was not donated to MOHAI, and its ultimate fate is not known.

And, though it will belong to MOHAI, it’s also not yet known exactly where the large elephant sign will land after it has been restored.

“We are currently discussing plans for the sign once it is restored,” wrote MOHAI’s Kristin Halunen in an email. “The critical piece right now is getting the sign safely removed so that conservation work can begin.”

This all came about pretty fast, especially for a sign depicting such a slow-moving animal. Halunen says car wash representatives contacted MOHAI just two weeks ago.

Steve Hall hopes his group can put the brakes on what feels like an accelerated timeline, and ultimately keep the elephant in its original home, rather than see it placed in storage at MOHAI’s Georgetown facility, or even on display in the museum’s public galleries at nearby Lake Union Park.

“Our argument is that [the sign’s] significance – its ability to convey its significance – is inherent to its location,” Hall said, and that means along Denny Way and near Aurora Avenue. “Because it’s [about] the importance of place, and we hear again and again how Seattle is changing, and these are the sort of intangible things that people love, and they’re connected to place.”

Hall has been emailing city officials and trying to sort out bureaucratic red tape between the Department of Neighborhoods, where the Seattle Landmarks program resides, and the Department of Construction and Inspections, the city agency that issues building and demolition permits – including what’s required in order for the elephant sign to be moved.

Friends of Historic Belltown is hoping to compel the City of Seattle to formally review the elephant sign for its potential as a city landmark, including taking into account where it has stood for 64 years, to judge whether or not the sign – along with its location – are worthy of preservation.

Steve Hall says the goal is for the sign to go through a formal landmark review process before any decision is made by the city to allow or deny permits necessary to move the sign. Officials designated the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer globe, also now owned by MOHAI, a city landmark in 2012. The decaying and unrestored globe, with much of its neon tubing apparently broken, remains atop the waterfront building where it was moved (along with offices of the newspaper) back in 1986.

Hall also says he has nothing against museums in general – or the elephant’s new owner in particular.

“I love MOHAI,” Hall said, but he says Friends of Belltown’s argument is that “taking the sign from that site and putting it in a museum is a compromise” of the elephant’s value and meaning to the community.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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