Iconic Santa Fe Sign May Change (Update 1)

Santa Fe and Motorola signs side-by-side

If there’s one thing Chicago preservationists hate, it’s signs on downtown buildings.  The only thing they hate more is when existing signs on downtown buildings are changed.

That’s the prospect being faced at the Santa Fe Building (224 South Michigan Avenue), formerly known as the Railway Exchange Building.  Motorola is moving a hundred employees from the ‘burbs into the historic 1904 building, and as part of the deal it apparently gets naming rights.

Thursday, Motorola will ask the city’s landmarks commission for permission to replace the illuminated “Santa Fe” with very similar illuminated “Motorola.”

Here’s what it might look like:

Santa Fe Building with Motorola sign

It’s hardly a drastic change.  Motorola intends to keep the illumination, and keep the font.  It even plans to keep the scaffolding.

For those who haven’t been keeping up on their industrial history: The Santa Fe Railroad no longer exists.  It hasn’t existed since December 31, 1996.  Its former tracks are now the BNSF Railway, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas.

And Santa Fe is hardly the only ghost sign on the Michigan Avenue streetwall.  Just down the avenue is the BorgWarner sign, which promotes a company that left Chicago for Detroit (talk about an insult!) in 2005.  You may also remember that 30 North Michigan harbored a shrink wrapped sign for a defunct bank for close to a decade.

Does keeping the Santa Fe sign (and the BorgWarner sign) mean we should allow Michigan Avenue to become a museum of historic signage?  Should put up a “Jones & Son Buggy Whip Company” sign on Symphony Hall?  That might be a cool tourist attraction.  We could find and resurrect the old Torco sign from the Columbia College South Building (624 South Michigan Avenue), and scour the newspaper archives for photos of other lost signs that we can recreate.  Next thing you know, the place could look like a 1920’s version of Las Vegas.

If you have an opinion about this, feel free to express it below.  If you have a very strong opinion on this, you should also show up in room 201-A at City Hall at 12:45pm on Thursday, May 3rd.

Update: 5:19pm CT - April 30, 2012

In the comments below, Dennis McClendon has linked to a drawing of the actual proposed sign:

Motorola sign proposal

That’s certainly a change from the old Santa Fe sign.  The landmarks commission’s agenda for Thursday reads:

Proposed reface of the existing non-historic illuminated rooftop “Santa Fe” sign with new illuminated “Motorola” copy on existing structure,

The graphic above is hardly a “copy” since the font, size, and style have changed.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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  1. We all know the immense strength of Chicago to remain Chicago. I lived there for many years and I still live there in my frequent thoughts and statements.

    The Santa Fe Sign is the crown of the building, an icon that has been there for many decades in the grand Michigan Avenue. It is not only a visual icon but also it bears the name of what helped Chicago be Chicago, the railroad.

    I understand that there are economic circumstances that allow flexibility but it should never change our essence, who we are, and the Santa Fe sign is part of Chicago.

    I admire Motorola as a company, my uncle worked there but, please, keep the History of American Cities intact, do not tear any more pages from it.

    It will always be My Kind of Town, Chicago is!


    Carlos Ignacio Morales

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    • Editor

      Now that I’ve thought about it a while, I don’t really have an opinion about whether it stays or goes. Motorola isn’t a bad name to have on the building — Thanks to Moto, Chicago is the birthplace of the cell phone. I don’t recall anyone complaining when the Torco sign was taken down. That at least had some style to it.

      But when the city landmarked the building, it specifically left the sign out. The sign is not part of the landmark designation. There must be a reason for this.

      The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. I wonder if it will lose that designation if the sign is removed.

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      • The only way that the building would ever lose its National Register designation is if a majority of the features that make it significant are removed. I suspect that this building was nominated under three areas: architectural importance, historical importance, and the work of a master architect (the latter two both referring to Burnham’s involvement. Even if the sign was considered a “character defining feature,” which MNT suggests it was not, removing it would not completely destroy the architecture. It would take something as drastic as a complete recladding of the building to affect its designation.

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  2. I’m surprised that they intend to keep the same font, as font is clearly part of a company’s branding. But if they do, then I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. If they were to make the sign noticeably bigger, or use Motorola’s font or logo, or change the color (or, g-d forbid, use color-changing LEDs!), then I think it would be a more disconcerting change.

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  3. Here’s the actual sign being proposed. The new sign has been reviewed by Landmarks staff and approval is on the agenda of the Permit Review Committee meeting on Thursday, May 3, 2012.


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    • Editor

      Thanks for that, Dennis. I’ve updated the story above and included the text that Motorola presumably provided to the city which claims the new sign will be a “copy” of the old one. Hardly looks like a copy to me!

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      • When they say copy, they are just referring to the “copy” or text of the sign. They are not saying that the sign is a copy of the old sign or anything else.

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  4. No, the sign was not referred to fondly in the National Register report. I believe \intrusive\ was the word it used.

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