Signage writ large

Communicating a brand big time

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 latest technology, ca. 1971

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.

[thanks to Harbert Realty for the rendering, and bhamwiki for the historic photo]

11 responses to “Signage writ large

  1. I’m perfectly dumbfounded that such a thing as a gigantic Pepsi sign would even be thought up, much less proposed and considered. I’m proud of Buffalo Rock and all that, but really now, this proposal isn’t exactly a compliment to the city. We have to live with so much corporate naming (as in Regions Park and whatever they renamed Oak Mountain Amphitheater– I’ve suppressed it) and gigantic screens and things screaming and lunging at us. Enough a’ready.

  2. I don’t have the city’s sign ordinance in front of me, but I’m pretty sure it prohibits billboards on rooftops. A new sign would not be “historic” which is why the message sign has been allowed to keep operating. We do not need a new billboard in downtown Birmingham.

  3. Well sh-t. I don’t think Harbert Realty has tried to utilize the sign. They should rent it for 49 dollars a day and replace all the dead bulbs, if not replace the entire screen with a modern full color display. The BARBERS sign at five points is gone, because Barber did not give a hoot. Thank god for City Federal.

  4. I think the new sign will say “Take that Atlanta!”

  5. It wouldn’t be the first time that soft drink ads have appeared on the tops of the city’s skyscrapers, but this Pepsi concept is so in-your-face and obnoxious. The ad would be unavoidable and dominate the skyline views from Vulcan, Railroad Park, the new stadium, etc.–it would appear that the entire city was sponsored by Pepsi. I also find it a hard to believe that Harbert would ever take down the Pepsi ad to renovate the sign; why deal with the headaches and costs of maintaining the electronic sign when Pepsi is writing big checks to dominate the cityscape?

  6. Just a billboard. Should be denied. Harbert Realty should never have proposed this. The old electronic board was ‘message only’. It should not be allowed to come back as an animated billboard.

  7. To me at least, this would be a different question if Buffalo Rock were proposing to advertise their own ginger ale on the sign instead of Pepsi.

    • Or better yet–Buffalo Rock advertising their ginger ale in a large, neon-retro format somehow…it’s hard, in areas outside of Times Square or Picadilly Circus, to make multi- color advertising graphics work in a dense urban setting…thanks.

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