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Horn of Plenty (of trouble)

Preserving the Scott’s cornucopia on Decatur road is problematic

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-02-24


Once upon a time, in an era known as the 1940s and 50s, giant, flashing neon signs loomed over the cityscapes and highways of America like resurrected prehistoric beasts in a drive-in movie.

They came to be known as, appropriately, spectacular signs, and as sometimes happens, these giant spectacular signs took on a significance and meaning that went far beyond their original purpose as advertising.

Angie Quinn, executive director of ARCH — Fort Wayne’s Historic Preservation organization — offers this quote from a book by Tama Starr and Edward Hayman to explain the signs’ appeal and meaning. “These signs appeal to child in us. We love to contemplate a steaming coffee cup bigger than six hot tubs and savor the sight of the heroic Johnny Walker as tall as a skyscraper, striding endlessly across the night sky. This peculiar combination of grandeur and whimsy has an undeniable, magnetic attraction.”

To continue: “These signs do more than advertise products… they dramatize America’s self-image in messages with many layers of meaning. We are the biggest and best and we are here to stay. In the seeming effortlessness and balletic precision with which our spectaculars operate suggest the confidence and sense of order we like to believe are the defining qualities of our national character.”

“So they’re not just an advertising sign,” says Quinn. “They’re significantly something more, especially when they reach the proportion of a 70-foot bowl of fruit.”

The 70-foot bowl of fruit (and vegetables) Quinn refers to is the giant cornucopia which has been dispensing its bounty over the grocery store on Decatur road since it opened as Eavey’s in 1956. Eavey’s was one of those businesses that seem hard to believe by today’s standards. It was one of the biggest grocery stores in the country — Life magazine did a feature on it back in the day — and those who remember talk about an enormous coffee grinder, a swimming pool, and a giant red slide adjacent to the property.

Spectacular signs started to disappear or become a bit more modest in the 60s. “It had to do with the fact that lots of cities began making more stringent sign ordinances,” says Quinn. “A lot of communities ultimately passed ordinances to keep signs from having flashing lights or something like that, so the ones that are still around were often times ‘grandfathered’ in.”

The Eavey’s location became Scott’s in the late 60s, but the sign stayed — a 70-foot tall cornucopia made of porcelain-coated steel with neon lights outlining each fruit and vegetable. True to the Starr and Hayman quote at the beginning of this story, the giant cornucopia became an icon for the community and the neighborhood, so that when the Scott’s on Decatur road announced it was shutting its doors last month, quite a few people were disappointed. More to the point, they were worried about the sign. Writing on her blog Child of the Fort (childofthefort.blogspot.com), Kristina Frazier-Henry recounts her own memories of the sign that she had growing up on the Southside of Fort Wayne, and says in an open letter to Kroger’s, “So now, you're closing Decatur Road Scott's and I'm sitting here in my little ole house in Fishers, Indiana, fretting about the future of the cornucopia. I kid you not. If you destroy one of the most iconic symbols of Fort Wayne, I don't think that I will ever forgive you.”

Another blog, Around Fort Wayne (aroundfortwayne.info/blog) also took up the call, asking if ARCH would step up to save the sign.

But the problem is, steps taken by Scott’s back in 1992 to preserve the sign take it out of ARCH’s purview. “What’s sad about the Scott’s sign is that it had neon on it, so it really was a spectacular spectacular,” says Angie Quinn, who wrote on ARCH’s blog about her own memories of the Scott’s sign. But the sign was in bad condition by the late 80s/early 90s, and Scott’s replaced it with a new metal sign and got rid of the neon. It remained as a community landmark, but without the original materials… “Scott’s did a great thing, but it creates this horrible conundrum for national register status because it’s not eligible anymore, so it makes doing traditional historic preservation activities difficult,” Quinn explains.

“From a strictly historic preservation standpoint, it’s a difficult task for us,” Quinn adds. “It doesn’t fall into the things we usually do. The tools in our tool belt don’t usually include something that was built in 1992. And it’s not something that has an economic use — it’s not a building, it’s not a house. The building is in good condition, so the structure has an economic life that could include that sign. Whether or not we can ever determine another use for that building that would appreciate the giant cornucopia on top or whether another location would ever be found where it would be appropriate and in scale… those are the things that have to be worked through.”

Quinn says ARCH is looking into what they can do, but hopes that they aren’t the only avenue for preserving the sign. (though tearing it down presents another set of problems to the location’s owner — that supports on that thing are SOLID).

For more information and updates, check out the blog on the ARCH website at archfw.org.

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