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Seattle Elephant Car Wash sign packs its trunk and leaves

A sign company Tuesday removed the iconic neon sign from the Elephant Car Wash on Denny Way at Sixth Avenue.

The rotating sign, a highly visible roadside landmark for generations that first went on display in 1956, was carefully separated into two halves — after several rusted bolts were cut — and then each piece was lifted by a crane and lowered onto a trailer. The dismantled artifact was taken to Western Neon’s workshop in Sodo where it will be stored while awaiting possible restoration.

With the car wash at that location now closed and the car wash building recently demolished, the free-standing sign was donated by the car wash owner to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that the smaller elephant sign at the south side of the property was donated to Amazon, who will display it inside one of their nearby buildings.

When the imminent removal of the sign was first announced in October, the community group Friends of Historic Belltown expressed interest in keeping it on display in its original location or perhaps returning it there, regardless of what will next be built at that location. However, because the Elephant sign was not officially considered a historic landmark, and because the City of Seattle did not require the building owner to obtain a demolition permit for the giant sheet-metal pachyderm, Friends of Historic Belltown’s efforts to prevent the sign’s the removal via regulatory means were not successful.

“Generally speaking, to remove a sign does not necessarily require any sort of permit from our department,” said Bryan Stevens, a spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction & Inspections. “Putting up a sign requires a permit in every case, because we have standards in place that we need to make sure the sign adheres to, but to remove a sign, there’s really nothing for us to review.”

Stevens told KIRO Radio that a permit might be required to remove a “really large sign that required a really large footing in the ground to support the sign structure, and if there was some concern about impacts of removing that large foundational footing, we might require a demolition permit for that, but that would be very rare.”

Steve Hall, a member of Friends of Historic Belltown, was frustrated by the way this lack of a review process for the Elephant Car Wash sign played out at City Hall.

“I’m most disappointed that the City did not even respond to our letter,” Hall wrote in an email to KIRO Radio early Wednesday, referring to a letter dated Oct. 9 that asked that the city weigh the potential historic significance of the sign before issuing a demolition permit for the car wash complex. “Nothing. Just crickets. The City should have at least acknowledged our concerns and state why they felt our recommendations were not valid.”

In response to an inquiry made by KIRO Radio on behalf of Hall, DCI’s Bryan Stevens wrote:

“We reviewed the letter from Friends of Historic Belltown. While we did respond to many reporters on the topic, we should have also responded to their concerns related to the sign once we confirmed that a permit was not needed to remove the sign and that the sign was not included within the scope of the demolition permit being requested.”

Only one sign in Seattle is currently an official city landmark: the P-I Globe near the waterfront. One remedy might be a comprehensive survey of other outdoor signage in Seattle – such as the Bardahl sign in Ballard – to see if other potential landmarks like the Elephant may some day fall through the administrative cracks. A survey would require investment by the city in the landmark program, which is part of the Department of Neighborhoods.

Regardless, no subsequent changes in the city’s approach to preserving or even only surveying the visual landscape will have any effect on the Elephant Car Wash sign.

Andre Lucero, president of Western Neon, told KIRO Radio on Monday that moving large signs can sometimes be nerve wracking, whether it’s the newly reimagined Bon Marché star they installed last week – now known as the Seattle Star – or the neon Elephant.

“There was a pretty good crowd when we were lifting up the star,” Lucero said. “We have our safety plan, we’ve done it many times, and so we’re experienced at it, but you just never know.”

“It always gets the emotion and the heart rate up, no matter what size of sign it is, when you are trusting a cable to hold it with people around and power lines and if a wind storm comes,” Lucero continued. “We got delayed last week [installing the star] because of that big wind storm that came through.”

“We’ve always taken it safe as much as we can,” Lucero said.

MOHAI has not shared specific plans for the possible restoration of the elephant and when it might be put on public display at the museum at Lake Union Park.

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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