The bright red “1st” sign that has been a glowing fixture in the St. Paul skyline for about 80 years has gone dark.
Last week’s snowstorms damaged the fragile neon tubes that illuminate the sign above the First National Bank Building. Wind knocked out a quarter of the sign’s lights, prompting building officials to turn off the entire sign Thursday, said Scott Goltz, vice president of St. Paul-based Madison Equities, which owns the building.
But it won’t stay dark forever.
Building officials are opting to replace breakable neon with energy-efficient LED lighting, an increasingly common move for Twin Cities landmarks.
Minneapolis’ riverfront signs for Pillsbury’s Best Flour and North Star Blankets were recently fixed up with LED lights. The Schmidt Brewery sign in St. Paul was replaced in 2014. And August Schell Brewing Co. purchased the Grain Belt sign on Nicollet Island and plans to have it illuminated by summer 2017.
Goltz estimated it will cost $500,000 to redo the “1st” sign. He hopes it will be glowing again by the end of the summer.
“To have to shut it down is kind of heartbreaking for us,” he said. “It’s kind of why we bought [the building].”
Madison Equities bought the First National Bank Building last year. The building, located at 332 Minnesota St., was St. Paul’s tallest for 55 years. The “1st” sign at the peak of the high rise is visible from 20 miles away on a clear day and 75 miles from the air at night, according to the building’s website.
“It’s synonymous, I think, with St. Paul and the downtown and the history of our community,” Matt Hill, a longtime St. Paul resident and vice chairman of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission, said of the sign. “I personally would like to see it stay on and continue to be that icon in the future.”
James Crockarell, who owns Madison Equities, said he is surprised by how much attention the sign is getting since it went dark.
“It makes me understand that this is an iconic symbol in St. Paul,” Crockarell said.
The lights in the “1st” sign have been shut off before. They were turned off for a decade in response to an energy crisis in the 1970s.
The overhaul of the sign comes as Madison Equities is making the First National Bank Building more environmentally friendly, Goltz said. They are putting in a new air conditioning system and shifting other lights in the building to LED, he said.
Once the LED lights are installed in the red sign, they will save the company money because they use less electricity and are difficult to break, Goltz said.
“What you see is the new technology is supporting the preservation of historic signage,” Hill said of LED projects around the Twin Cities, which he said are keeping alive a past that many people would otherwise forget.
“It’s just a reminder of the city’s history,” Hill said. “It really is important, I think, for a community to have those types of icons that people can relate to and understand.”
Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649