2010 - Post-restoration of Thunderbird sign in Riverside (RXSQ)

Neon be gone?

One of the finest neon signs from Riverside’s post-war past may soon be coming down in the name of progress.

The owner of the Thunderbird Lodge located at 2711 University Avenue is in the midst of a $1.3 million overhaul of the atomic-era motel. Sadly, not included within the renovation are plans to keep the motel’s unique neon sign. The sign, long since in full working order, has a large and colorful thunderbird perched atop a 50-foot pole containing the letters LODGE.

The motel’s owner says repairing the sign would be too costly and simply does not fit in with the motel’s soon-to-be Mediterranean motif:

The old neon sign doesn’t fit in with (owner Neil) Bhakta’s desire to transform his motel’s image. The top part, with the thunderbird, is broken and would cost $22,000 to fix, he said, so it needs to go.

“Nobody’s going to drive in and stay at my place because of that sign,” Bhakta said Friday. “It had a time, a place and a purpose. None of the three are valid right now.”

Riverside Press-Enterprise – March 26, 2005

We say that $22,000 is a drop in the bucket in a project costing $1.3 million. It appears the owner does not understand the significance of the sign’s motif, architecture, and height (such signs are nearly impossible to get these days) — nor its potential.

Moreover, “Mediterranean” style motels are dime-a-dozen these days. Every city has one — or two. But a completely restored, atomic-era Thunderbird Lodge, however, is anything but indistinguishable.

Apparently, the city’s Cultural Heritage Board agrees with us as the board recently voted 4-3 against the sign’s removal on account that it’s eligible for historical landmark status. However, the city’s Land Use Committee overruled that decision:

The committee voted unanimously to let Bhakta remove the sign, as long as he tries to find a museum or other institution willing to take it.

Riverside Press-Enterprise – March 26, 2005

Hopefully, the sign is kept or — at the very least — finds a nice home (preferably somewhere nearby) before it’s too late.

2007 Update: After initially planning to scrap the neon thunderbird sign, the motel’s owner decided to keep and restore the sign:

Once ready to banish the thunderbird that was the symbol of his University Avenue motel, Neil Bhakta has embraced it instead.

... But Bhakta changed his mind.

“Everybody knows the Thunderbird here,” he said. “It’s historical. I couldn’t let that go.”

… Ralph Megna, a Cultural Heritage Board member who in 2005 argued in favor of keeping the neon sign, said he was happy to learn it will stay.

“I think it’s a striking reminder of the heyday of roadside architecture,” he said.

Riverside Press-Enterprise – November 14, 2007

(2024 Update: We’re glad to report the sign was fully restored with all its neon glory (post-restoration photos added). The owner deserves credit for reversing their initial stance by realizing the character and uniqueness of the thunderbird sign.)

(And although we appreciate the keeping of the Thunderbird name (as opposed to the previously-proposed Tuscany name change) and the addition of raincrosses (though, not quite to proportion), we would have also liked to have seen the motel’s exterior restored — er, enhanced — to highlight its original, atomic-era motif (to better match the newly-restored neon sign). But it appears plans had already progressed too far at the time of reversal for scrapping the neon sign. Regardless, the restoration of the neon signage is a win for mid-century, vernacular/roadside architecture.)


  • Riverside Press-Enterprise – Neon be gone (March 26) | Thunderbird Lodge soars as it gets improvements (Nov. 14, 2007)

2010 – Post-restoration of Thunderbird sign (RXSQ)

2009 – Post-restoration of Thunderbird sign (RXSQ)

Sources: Riverside Press-Enterprise (PE-20050326, PE-20071114)

2024 PAGE UPDATE: Added 2007/2024 updates and 2009/2010, post-restoration photos; added 1960s-era postcard; added minor context/clarification; removed outdated links to newspaper article.

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