One of Mesa’s iconic landmarks at a Mesa motel has taken a belly-flop onto a concrete parking lot, but there’s a possibility the city will let it rise again.
The 80-foot neon sign featuring three stages of a diving lady at the Starlite Motel, 2710 E. Main St., also informally known as the Diving Lady Motel, came crashing down about 2 p.m. Oct. 5 during a violent storm. The hard fall shattered its neon lights, dented its thick metal and could have ended more than 50 years of a city presence. In a heavy afternoon wind as the downpours began, the sign fell after a welding point from a previous repair failed.
The diving lady sign now is surrounded by pieces of police tape to keep people at a distance — people who describe its demise as a part of nostalgia disappearing from America’s landscape.
However, Mesa officials say there’s a provision in the city’s sign ordinances that could allow it to go back up if the motel owners find it financially feasible to do so, according to Jeff McVey, a planner with the city’s Development and Sustainability Department.
McVey told the Tribune on Monday that the sign currently exists as a “legal non-conforming sign,” meaning it was grandfathered in before the city put its current sign laws in place in the mid 1990s. The current law requires signs to be no taller than 12 feet and no more than 80 square feet in circumference. It also prohibits animated neon.
“If the Board of Adjustment believes that special circumstances are involved, they could approve the sign to be put back up,” McVey said. “It is not uncommon for businesses to request a comprehensive sign plan that allows signs to exceed what’s currently allowed. Shops at Mesa Riverview did it and so did Bass Pro Shop.”
The Board of Adjustment under the city’s Development and Sustainability Department, meets the second Tuesday of every month and would work with the Starlite owners to get the matter before the board, McVey said.
Mesa City Councilman Alex Finter, who represents that portion of the city, told the Tribune on Monday that he suggests the city do “everything possible” and allow an exception for the sign to go back up.
“I would hope that the city would use some common sense and weigh in with their historical values to allow the sign to stay,” Finter said. “It would be pretty unreasonable if we didn’t allow it to be put back up considering the unusual circumstances it came down.”
The diving lady sign, which was raised sometime between 1955 and 1960 (the motel opened in 1955), was one of many neon signs along Main Street that were similar to those along Route 66. But the Starlite’s diving lady sign was nationally known through books and photo exhibits, displaying the art of neon signs that once crowded the Main Streets of America when families took long trips by car and a motel’s blinking neon sign was a beacon in the night.
“Think when you’d be driving down a dark highway looking for a place to stay,” said Vin Linoff, former chairman of Mesa’s historic preservation board and the Mesa Historical Museum’s board of directors. “The diving lady sign was one of the quintessential neon signs because it caught your eye in an era of roadside lodging. These signs weren’t made by a factory, they were a highly-skilled piece of art made by someone who had to be knowledgeable of chemistry, gases, electronics and the color it would create in the tubes.”
The sign was designed by Stanley Russell and built by Paul Millet, who later worked for Guerrero-Lindsey Sign Co., in Mesa now owned by Fernando Guerrero Jr. Russell and Millett both are deceased, but well remembered as “legends” in the neon sign making business, Linoff said.
“Paul Millet was a master at it,” Linoff said. “A lot of people don’t realize that a neon sign can be placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks such as a building or landscaping.”
Minal Patel, the son of Bob Patel, the Starlite’s owner since 2003 who was out of town, said the business has received a lot of messages about the sign on its Facebook page. About 10 to 15 people have been calling about it every day since it fell, with others stopping by to see it so they can share their memories from a time when the sign could be seen from a mile away on Main Street from either direction.
“Everybody in Mesa knew the sign,” Patel said.
Patel also said a number of people who have called asked about whether they could start making donations to restore the sign, but he and his father plan to talk to city officials this week to see whether it would even be permitted.
Several guests at the Starlite lamented the loss of the diving lady.
“When I saw the sign down on the ground, my heart slumped,” said Neil Sullivan, a truck driver who has stayed at the Starlite off and on for the last few years. “You don’t see interesting, casual neon signs like that anymore. You only see the big, grand neon signs like that in Las Vegas or Reno where they advertise gambling at casinos.
“Signs like the diving lady are part of America’s history that are on their way out. The diving lady always marked the spot to remind me that I was almost home.”
Thomas Morgan, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who has lived at the Starlite since July, said of the fallen diving lady: “It’s another piece of my childhood gone. It was a curiosity, an oddity. I never knew the philosophy behind the diving girls.”
The sign used to front a small swimming pool on an island of the Starlite’s parking lot, but the pool was filled in about seven years ago, according to its residents.
“I’m very sad,” said Olivia Alvarado, who has worked as the maid at the Starlite for more than two years. “I’ve been in Mesa since I was 4 years old, and I remember seeing the diving lady then. I’m 62 now. I say it should go back up. When I would sit down in my room and look out my window, I would see the diving lady. Now, I don’t see anything.”