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The “ToyMac” sign

July 10, 2013

ToyMac sign top

ToyMac sign animated

What’s left of the BowMac sign. Click the image to see it uncropped.

We’re looking South across West Broadway Avenue, at a Toys-R-Us store, at 1154-1176 West Broadway, between the cross-streets Spruce, and Alder. A big store with a big light-box sign; big deal! To Vancouverites though,  particularly of a certain age, I suppose, that’s the BowMac sign, with a Toys-R-Us logo superimposed in front of it on a white metal screen, which doesn’t even fully cover the old sign. Back in 1997 the City of Vancouver designated the sign as a landmark worthy of preservation, and revitalization.

The 10-storey sign was originally erected in 1958, to mark the location of the Bowell McLean (BowMac) car dealership. In it’s glory, it was clad in hundreds of incandescent light bulbs, and neon. It was the second largest structure in Vancouver, and recognized as North America’s largest freestanding sign; it could apparently be seen for 18 miles. Now it only looms large in some people’s imaginations.

The 1950s had left Vancouver a huge legacy of these big, bold neon, and bulb signs, mostly in the downtown entertainment district, and “Theatre Row” on North Granville. They began disappearing in the 1960s, as tastes changed, and this kind of signage was seen as garish, and old fashioned. The BowMac sign, the most garish of all, survived into the 1990s, when there was widespread regret over the wholesale destruction of the old neon signs from the 1950s. The city’s planning and heritage departments stepped in to protect the sign from impending demolition after Toys-R-Us purchased the BowMac property in the 1990s., by passing legislation in 1997 to preserve it.

Last one standing wins

Many people continue to think the BowMac sign is a butt-ugly eyesore. I disagree about that, but even if it is, it’s also a piece of real history, a pale reminder of a time when Vancouver was the North American neon capital. It earned it’s designation as a landmark worthy of heritage conservation in May 1997, because of it’s history, and because it’s distinctive qualities, like font, design style, and shape, are so representative of it’s era. Surely also, it stands to commemorate all the better neon and bulb signs which are long beyond saving.

ToyMac East sideToyMac West side

I remember seeing this sign every day for ten years through the 1980s, craning my head to look at it’s dizzying height, when I rode my bike, or took the bus to The Georgia Straight, or other clients way down West Broadway towards Alma. I still always look for it when I’m on West Broadway. For thousands of Vancouverites, myself included, the BowMac sign is a landmark in both our city, and our memory. Click the images to enlarge them.

billboard-lee-2007Sadly, another commercial landmark wasn’t as lucky. An impossibly-large billboard which was erected in 1997 atop the seven-storey brick Lee Building situated on the rise at the intersection of Broadway Avenue, and Main Street ran afoul of Vancouver’s anti-billboard bylaw, and had to be dismantled after a 10-year battle, which went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.

Superlatives from thevisiblecity site
The ToyMac sign from the back
Great Vancouver Courier post on Lee Building turning 100 in 2012

From → Fairview, ToyMac sign

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