Today at Design Review Committee, Harbert Realty presented a proposal to wrap the electronic message board atop Two North 20th (corner Morris Avenue and 20th Street North, the former Bank for Savings building) with a massive vinyl advertisement for Pepsi (rendering, above). This is probably an unprecedented request, but the message board itself is unique to the City and Alabama, and therefore presents a special context for debate.
The giant electronic sign, with its ability to scroll messages with some 1,280 incandescent light bulbs, went up in 1971 as a symbol of a new, modern Birmingham emerging from the turbulent 1960’s. Above, we see the new sign in context over a soon-to-be-greened 20th Street North (note the billboard on the right for the new First National-Southern Natural building, now Regions Center). Over the years, the cost of maintaining the sign has caused it to change hands and go dark periodically. Harbert stated today that they can no longer afford to run the sign as-is; they want to convert it to LED technology when economic conditions permit. Until then, they want to hit the off switch, and rent it out for the Pepsi advertisement.
Despite the obsolete technology, and the fact that no sign like this would ever be approved today (there were no design review approval districts back in 1971), there is a certain civic fondness for the quirkiness of the sign. Committee member Mark Fugnitto lauded the existing sign for both its retro quality and its ability from a distance to blend into the urban context. Cheryl Morgan wondered why Pepsi wouldn’t agree to a more custom, artistic banner that would be tailored for Birmingham in lieu of the generically commercial design presented. In the end, the Committee refused the applicant, and asked for him to return with another design.
There is no question the sign is about to go dark; at issue is whether it just sits dark, or gets the Pepsi banner. Harbert’s representative was pessimistic he could convince Pepsi (through local distributor Buffalo Rock) to modify the banner. This unique part of the skyline can be allowed to change with the times. Keeping it special and beloved will be a challenge.