When the neon “Swinging Girl” on Hastings Street in Burnaby’s Heights neighbourhood stops swinging, people notice.
When she disappears, people panic.
That’s why the Heights Merchants Association decided to warn community members last fall before the sign was taken down to be refurbished.
But that didn’t stop some from calling anyway when it happened, according to Heights Merchants Association executive director Isabel Kolic.
“Lots of people noticed that she was missing, and I think they were alarmed that they’d lost her forever, but we quickly told them that, no, the city was taking care of her,” she said.
Kolic said the iconic sign – a unique vintage neon that moves, thanks to a built-in motor – had been having mechanical issues for a while.
So the last time it stopped swinging, in the fall, the city decided to take it down and give it a thorough once-over.
It was taken to Mainland Signs in Richmond, under the direction of Sicon Signs, which is contracted to maintain the sign.
“It’s so much easier for them to do the quality work while it’s in the shop as opposed to hanging off the side of a building trying to repaint it,” said City of Burnaby heritage planner Lisa Codd.
Step one of the process was to create a stencil of the sign, so its colours – the two-toned blue dress, the red lips and pale-peach face, arms and legs – could be meticulously replicated.
The sign had been touched up with paint for years, according to Sicon Signs owner Tim McLean, so the second step was to sandblast away layers of flaking paint.
Inside the sign, the motor was repaired and cleaned and a bearing replaced, McLean said.
Painter Steve Boal, who was tasked with repainting the sign, said he recognized it as soon as it came into the shop.
He said he remembered seeing it as a kid when taking the bus to Vancouver.
“It was pretty hard to miss. Back in the ’80s there was not a lot of neon around, and it just really stood out, and I thought it looked really cool,” he said.
The sign was originally commissioned by Helen Arnold in 1955 for her store, Helen’s Children’s Wear at 4142 East Hastings, to draw the eye of customers then increasingly taking to automobiles.
By the time the store was sold 52 years later, in 2007, Helen’s Swinging Girl had become a beloved landmark, and the city stepped in to save it.
It bought the sign from Sicon Signs, which had bought out the original creator and owners of the Swinging Girl, the Wallace Neon Company, in the 1970s.
(Most of the Lower Mainland’s iconic neon signs were not owned by the businesses they advertised, McLean explained. They were rented from sign companies, like Wallace.)
The city then contracted Sicon Signs to refurbish it.
In place of “Helen’s,” the top of the sign was changed to read “Heights.”
In 2010, the city then listed the sign on its community heritage register, officially naming the girl on the swing Helen, in honour of Arnold.
The city hopes to have the Swinging Girl swinging in the Heights again by next Wednesday.
The cost of the project will be about $10,000, according to Codd.