September 3, 2009

Collegetown’s Landmark Sign May Return Home

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Like many Cornell alumni, Alderperson Mary Tomlan (D-4th Ward) has fond memories of the neon sign that once marked the entrance to Johnny’s Big Red Grill.
“I first came here as a grad student in the mid-1960s, and I used to go to Johnny’s,” Tomlan recalls. “It was a nice place to go late at night for a good sandwich.”
The picture on the sign features Cornell’s mascot, the Big Red Bear, which marked Johnny’s as a link between Cornell and the local community. Celebrities who attended Cornell, like Peter Yarrow ’59 of the band Peter, Paul and Mary, often stopped by the restaurant when they came back to visit Ithaca.
Thus, when the sign was removed last spring due to its structural instability and auctioned off on eBay, some viewed it as the end of an era.
But thanks to the efforts of one alumni couple, the sign will light up once again.
When Caroline Coplan ’76 read that the sign would be auctioned on eBay, she impulsively placed a $300 bid. Then, thinking that it would be a “fun gift” for her husband, Neil Coplan ’76, upcoming birthday, she placed a much higher bid and won the auction.
When she informed him about the transaction, Caroline recalled, “his first reaction was less than favorable.” But after thinking about it, Neil grew increasingly enthusiastic about returning the sign to Ithaca and Cornell.
The Coplans are currently searching for somewhere to store the sign until they decide where to display it.
“The important thing right now is to keep the sign safe until we find it a permanent home,” said John Gutenberger, Cornell’s director of community relations.
Two venues near Cornell have already extended offers to store the sign.
“I suggested we could store it for six months or so,” said Andrew Sciarraba, owner of the South Hill Business Campus, a former manufacturing facility near Ithaca College. He added, however, that the Coplans would have to transport the sign there themselves.
The other offer came from Tom LiVigne, the associate director of Cornell real estate, who suggested storing the sign in a nearby Cornell warehouse.
The sign’s permanent home has yet to be determined. The Coplans hope to see it “restored and displayed somewhere prominently, preferably in a public space where students gather.”
One potential display would incorporate the sign into a sculptural installation of the Ithaca skyline, perhaps even designed by architecture students at Cornell.
Neil also proposed installing it in the Johnson Museum “like a piece of folk art.”
Historic Ithaca, an organization that restores landmark buildings and structures, has expressed interest in the sign, as have owners of property in Collegetown who want to display the sign on their own restaurants.
The sign’s enormous size, however, creates several constraints.
“The sign is about two stories tall,” Tomlan pointed out, “so it needs a fairly substantial location.”
The sign’s size creates a financial problem as well. Restoring its neon lights would cost several thousand dollars. The Coplans plan to hold an alumni fundraiser to raise the necessary funds.
Since no one has yet volunteered to take the sign, the Coplans welcome all suggestions. Ideas they have encountered so far range from the ordinary to the bizarre. One of their friends, Jeffrey Kocher ’76, proposed using the sign “as a focal point for a Cornell theme park.”
Although tongue-in-cheek, Kocher’s recommendation illustrates the passion alumni have for the sign. In a report on Collegetown’s historic resources that Tomlan compiled with John Schroeder ’74, chair of the City of Ithaca Plan­ning and Development Board and The Sun’s Production Manager, the sign was named one of the “Icons of Collegetown.”
“Signs like that provide a historic connection to our past and a sense of identity and history to any community,” Gutenberger said.
Reminiscing about the days when the sign was a beacon for hungry Collegetown residents, Gutenberger recalled the way an acquaintance once described Johnny’s.
“Johnny’s was a place where the working class could meet with intelligentsia and discuss world issues with no barriers between them,” Gutenberger said.
In that respect, the restaurant formed a vital part of Ithaca’s tavern culture. Bars have long been part of the Cornell tradition, from the Chapter House to Zinck’s, a legendary bar that closed in the 1960s. Alumni still hold Zinck’s Nights in commemoration of the experiences they had there. The signs outside these bars, like the famous Chanticleer sign on the Commons, have come to represent a shared experience that many continue to cherish.
“Collegetown, to us, has become less warm and more generic,” Caroline said. “The sign is a reminder of those earlier times.”