An Illuminating Look at Chicago’s Neon Signs

Tom Brickler

Tom Brickler

If you walk east on Jackson Street in the West Loop toward Union Station, it’s hard to miss the red glow emanating from Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant. The color of the cursive lettering seems to emit a warm light. It’s an old school neon sign, made out of porcelain. And when the sign needs to be fixed, there’s only one man to call: Tom Brickler.

The owner of the Neon Shop Fishtail at 2247 North Western Avenue, Brickler has been selling and servicing neon signs for more than 30 years, and tinkering with the colorful, gaseous material for as long as he can remember.

“It’s a pure form of light,” Brickler said. “Working with neon is kind of a lost craft, too.”

The Green Mill at night

The Green Mill at night

That’s why so many businesses with neon signs come to him when they need repairs. Brickler has worked on such iconic neon signs as the emerald Green Mill and the Happy Days-era Diversey Rock And Bowl.

I mentioned one of my favorites to him — the art deco black and white Palace Grill Sandwich Shop sign on West Madison. Brickler nodded.

“Oh, yeah. I know that one well,” he said, smiling, as if he were an Art Institute restoration specialist and I’d just complemented a Monet he’d worked on.

Neon (periodic element symbol: Ne) is a colorless gas. It was first used to illuminate signs at the 1910 Paris Motor Show. Neon tube signs use glass tubing bent by a craftsman. Older signs were often made with porcelain, notable for their vibrant colors.

Nowadays, some businesses still want new neon signs—Brickler is currently creating one for the Third Rail Tavern on West Madison. Morgan Sims, a local artist, likes using neon in his work.

“I like the nostalgic commercial reference,” Sims said. “And you can define space with light, which is cool.”

Neon shopBrickler views neon signs as art, and others do as well. He’s servicing a piece that will be displayed at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. He’s also in the Rolodex of many TV and movie set designers. NBC’s “Chicago Fire” uses Lottie’s Pub in Bucktown as a hangout for the crew of fictitious Firehouse 51. The neon signs you see on the show were provided by The Neon Shop.

Designers from the summer blockbuster “Man Of Steel” also called on Brickler to provide neon for the movie’s Smallville set. He’s supplied neon art and signs for more than 30 movies, and many local theater productions.

Ask Brickler about one of his favorite neon signs and he’ll immediately answer: the Magic Kist Carpet red lips that once dotted the Chicago highways. They’re all gone, now—except one, which the Neon Shop has been commissioned to restore by a collector.

Classic neon signs are available in many shapes and sizes at the Neon Shop. Prices range from about $150 to $500, depending on the size, complexity of design and rarity. The highest priced pieces aren’t really signs. They’re clocks with neon circling the face. They’re coveted by neon aficionados and go for $800 to $900.

Margie's Candies on North Western Avenue

Margie’s Candies on North Western Avenue

Brickler’s interest in neon started when he acquired an old Budweiser sign. It didn’t work, but he couldn’t bear to toss it out. That led to a lifelong career and love of neon. Others who admire the craftsmanship and design of classic neon have many opportunities to see it in Chicago. In just a couple of Uptown blocks along Broadway, you’ll see three examples: National Car Wash, The Fat Cat and the Green Mill.

Just north of the Western CTA Station is Margie’s Candies. The Berghoff at 17 West Adams in The Loop has a great old neon sign, and excellent apple strudel, too. The Neon Shop Fishtail is located at 2247 North Western Avenue in Bucktown and its handmade work can be viewed in the store.

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article and wonderful photos. I used to love the neon sign at the Artists Cafe in the Fine Arts Building. I wonder what became of it. Didn’t the city impose some kind of exhorbitant tax on hanging neon signs?

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    • Editor

      Good catch on Artist’s Cafe. The original neon sign read “George Mitchell’s Artist’s Snack Shop.” I don’t know when it was removed, but Google Streetview shows a tacky green tarp with “Artist’s Cafe” painted on it. Next time I’m down there I’ll have to pay attention and see what it looks like now.

      Artist’s Cafe recently opened a second location. I suspect it doesn’t have any neon. Neon is expensive compared with LEDs. I wonder if at some point in the future we’ll be nostalgic about LEDs.

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      • I think the tarp is there to stay. At first I thought the neon sign was taken down to protect it while the building was being cleaned, but its replacement has been there for quite a while now.

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  2. They just did a neon install at Belmont and Kostner, that looks really nice for Daisy’s car wash. It had a lot of old school flourish that you just don’t see much these days.

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