National campaign to help fund 'diving lady' sign repairs - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

National campaign to help fund 'diving lady' sign repairs

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Posted: Friday, November 19, 2010 4:40 pm | Updated: 8:44 am, Tue Jul 5, 2011.

One of Mesa's icons is ready to be repaired and a national fundraising for the restoration project isn't far behind.

The nationally-known "diving lady" neon sign that graced the front of the Starlite Motel at 2710 E. Main St. for 50 years, is in a local sign repair shop in stable condition after a hard fall, but the prognosis to preserve her is positive - at a cost that needs public support and contributions in the near future, history preservationists in the city say.

The 70-foot high sign, which features three stages of a woman executing a springboard dive, belly-flopped onto the concrete parking lot of the motel during a series of thunderstorms Oct. 5.

It appeared as though the "diving lady" - a beacon for travelers from an era of roadside lodging when families traveled long distances by car - might never rise again.

But now, she is resting on her side at Graham's Neon and Electric Sign Specialists, 456 N. Country Club Drive, Mesa, and being examined by the shop's owner, Larry Graham, so it can be determined what repairs need to be made so she again can plunge from the highboard.

"It can be saved," said Graham, who is donating $6,000 worth of labor to the restoration project. "This is a piece of art. You don't see signs like this anymore. I want it to look like it never fell down and keep it original. It's not the normal thing you get to do. It will be fun and challenging."

The estimated total cost to repair the sign is $65,000. The cost of the repair work includes a new pole for the sign, repairing each of the three diving ladies (the outstretched ones are 14-feet long and way 250 pounds), and the five letters in the word MOTEL. Each letter is about 6 1/2 feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds.

A public fund-raising drive to preserve the sign likely will be launched in about two weeks according to Vic Linoff, who serves on the Mesa Historic Preservation Foundation.

The foundation is preparing to file its articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State so it can be established as nonprofit, making it eligible to receive contributions. A Facebook page is in the works to chronicle the project and provide information about when contributions can be accepted.

The owners of the Starlite Motel, Bob Patel and his son, Minal, are allowing the foundation to act on their behalf and go before the city boards to allow the sign to go up.

The current law requires signs to be no taller than 12 feet and 80 square feet in circumference. It also prohibits animated neon. However, the city's Development and Sustainability Department is working with the foundation and being supportive of the sign being restored because of its historical significance, Linoff said.

The Patel family is receiving about $8,000 from insurance to help cover the cost of the sign and it is possible that another local business will donate a new pole to uphold the sign so it can better withstand storms.

But the repair work won't be easy - when the sign came crashing down, it broke all of the neon glass lining the sign and bent the interior frame.

"The damage is significant," Linoff said. "All of the neon tubing around the sign was broken. A lot of the internal materials that weren't damaged are sub-standard and should be replaced. We're not looking to build a new sign, we want to restore the original one. We plan to go national with the fund-raising drive because the ‘diving lady' was in a number of books featuring neon signs and was known outside of the region."

Linoff said that a new pole for the sign is estimated to cost $8,000 to $10,000 alone, but there's a possibility a new, wider pole that would be fitted over the current 2,500-pound one could be donated. Graham also is talking to some of his suppliers about receiving donations of aluminum and 300 glass housings as well as transformers for the sign. Some of the sheet metal on the sign will have to be replaced with aluminum. Every time it rained, the lady's heads would fill with water and that took a toll over the years, Graham said.

Linoff said the sign was taken to Graham because they wanted to keep the work in the city, and Graham was mentored by Paul Millett, who built the sign. Millett, who owned Millett Signs, died a number of years ago. He was a legend in the neon sign-making industry, which has a deep-rooted history in Mesa.

"He taught me the art of bending neon and making light, which is a neat thing," Graham said.

Once the repair work is fully underway, the restoration project should take about three months, Graham said.

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