In a world where the P-I globe is preserved and restored

Nov 4, 2022, 11:10 AM | Updated: 5:26 pm
The P-I globe is partially visible from Elliott Avenue along the waterfront; it was moved there in 1985. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) An alternate view of the globe, looking to the south from the lower reaches of the edge of Queen Anne Hill. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The P-I's first neon sign was installed at Sixth & Pine in 1927; it now is stored at MOHAI and is considered the first neon sign in Seattle. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) MOHAI's collection includes many iconic signs. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) The P-I sign is in working order on one side of the two-sided sign. (MOHAI)
An illustration published in 1928 shows the original P-I neon sign jutting from the corner of the old P-I building on the southeast corner of Sixth & Pine in downtown Seattle. (Feliks Banel)

In exactly one year, the neon globe from the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) newspaper will mark its 75th birthday. With this diamond anniversary on the horizon, a plan may be in the works to restore the gem of a local landmark to its former glory.

The 30-foot diameter steel globe was first installed a few stories above the ground atop a building at 6th Avenue and Wall Street – which was the P-I’s brand-new headquarters – back in early November 1948. It weighs about 14 tons and is topped with an 18-foot eagle.

The “Daily Planet”-like sign was moved down to the waterfront back in 1985 when P-I relocated their headquarters to rented office space along Elliott Avenue. This move came not long after the “Joint Operating Agreement,” which meant the Seattle Times did all the newspaper printing for both daily papers on the Times’ presses. Incidentally, before the globe was moved, it was neighbors with the iconic Elephant Car Wash sign for nearly 30 years.

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Like the actual globe we all live on, the P-I globe has seen better times. It used to be illuminated with dozens of linear feet of neon tubes marking the latitude and longitude lines and the boundaries of continents. The eagle is also outlined in neon, and there’s a band of letters around the equator that spell out “It’s in the P-I” – and that band of letters used to rotate around the globe by way of an electric motor and rubber tires (hidden inside the metal sphere).

Ten years ago, the globe was made an official City of Seattle landmark, and there were hopes then to restore it and maybe even find a new and better home.

It still legally belongs to the Hearst Corporation; Hearst shut down the print paper in 2008, but they still run a P-I website. While they don’t have offices in that waterfront building anymore, Hearst does have an agreement from the building owner allowing the globe to be left in place. Fortunately, MOHAI – which has an extensive collection of local neon signs – has been the official steward of the globe for many years.

MOHAI director Leonard Garfield told KIRO Newsradio that hopes are to eventually raise enough money to repair and restore the globe and to fund its long-term annual operating expenses, which are not insignificant. In 2000, late Seattle P-I public affairs executive John Joly said the newspaper spent roughly $50,000 a year to maintain the vintage sign. There are no current estimates for what it will take to restore – including removal and re-installation – but Garfield says it might be as much as $2 million (including a maintenance endowment).

He also says his ideal solution would be for the globe to eventually be moved to the roof of a publicly owned building because if MOHAI does eventually take legal possession of the globe – which Garfield expects to happen – a public building would provide long-term stability.

With the 75th anniversary a year away, it’s too late for the globe to be restored by November 2023, but Garfield says that the 75th birthday might be a good time to formally launch a campaign.

MOHAI, under Garfield’s leadership, gets why it’s important to preserve what he describes as an artifact that is “seminal to downtown Seattle history.”

“It has been on our skyline for decades,” Garfield said earlier this week. “It reminds us of our role in the world, of our sense of our own importance. It helps light up rainy nights that we endure for so many months of the year, and it really is a treasured landmark in our city.

“MOHAI is committed to working with community partners to help save the sign for generations to come,” Garfield said.

MOHAI has a long relationship with Hearst and the P-I. Many P-I publishers have served on the board over the years, and the museum has preserved the millions of negatives and prints which comprise most of the P-I’s extensive photo collection.

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There’s also one more little-known part of the backstory regarding the globe and MOHAI’s connection to the P-I: the museum also has the P-I’s original neon sign – which is also believed to be the very first neon sign ever installed in Seattle.

The original sign is metal and is shield-shaped, two-sided, 8 feet tall and 13 feet wide, and it was initially installed and illuminated 95 years ago in June 1927 at the old P-I building on the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and Pine Street, which is a location dripping with local history. It was from the roof of that building where some of Seattle’s earliest radio broadcasts were made in 1921, and it was also from an office in that same building where P-I photographer Art “Happy” French was inspired in 1943 to invent department store Santa photos.

For maximum visibility, the sign stuck out from the building from the second or third floor at a 45-degree angle over the sidewalk, and it was on duty from 1927 until early 1949 when the P-I completed its move down the street. All the sign says is “P-I” in giant letters, and it also includes their old-style phone number: MAIN 2000. The sign also had an illuminated marquee beneath the neon portion with movable letters.

With more than a century’s worth of P-I history already in their collection, MOHAI is a natural to someday launch a campaign to restore the globe. And if and when they do, who could say no to helping make the world – even a neon one – a better place?

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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In a world where the P-I globe is preserved and restored