The Century-Old Neon Sign Tearing Up LA Conservationists

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The sketchiest freeway in Los Angeles is the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which winds its way through the northeast side of town in an eight-mile stretch so precarious that many choose to avoid it altogether. It was the first freeway ever built in the country, and a drive on it tends to go from amusing to bone-chilling as quickly as it takes to find yourself sitting at one of its stop-sign entrances, peering over your left shoulder, trying to gather the courage to enter directly into the right lane. With traffic flying by at around 65 miles per hour, and cars lining up impatiently behind you, merging onto the parkway is an act that usually comes down to a simple leap of faith: put your pedal to the metal and say a prayer.

This absurd relic of an antiquated era is technically part of Route 66, that mythical symbol of car-culture manifest destiny, and if you’re heading from downtown, it spills into the City of Pasadena, a mostly pleasant offshoot of LA that actually feels like its own city—a rarity in the larger county makeup. After landing at a merciful stoplight welcoming you to safety, the Arroyo Seco Parkway slows down to become a street named Arroyo Parkway, a main thoroughfare with a large number of businesses, including the first Trader Joe’s and the popular fast-food spot Lucky Boy. It’s a street that has history, but for the most part, it doesn’t feel all that historic. If you were to refer to it as “Route 66” to locals, they’d think you were a looney.

But it was on this street that a timewarp recently opened up, and Route 66 was briefly reborn. While renovating a building over the summer to become a new location of Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken, a false facade was taken down, revealing underneath it a subtle miracle of the past: a massive neon sign reading “Adohr Milk Farms,” its script featuring custom ligatures, its red paint still relatively sharp, having been hidden from the sun for who knows how long. Just like that, a nondescript building on a nondescript block stuck out like a beacon, the sign bringing back to life a different time—a portal to another world. The sight of it was so jarring that it had commuters pulling over to gawk.

“I think it was almost a traffic nightmare,” said Andrew Salimian, the preservation director at Pasadena Heritage, a nonprofit that’s taken an interest in the sign. “It’s a building that no one even noticed before they did construction. It was just something you drove by at 45 miles per hour or something. And then everyone was double-taking.”

Salimian said that within hours of the sign being excavated, his email was “going crazy” with people wanting to know more about it, and who were concerned about what was going to happen to it. This was a brief moment of pure innocence: Pasadenans saw the sign and marveled at it simply by appearance. For a time, there was nothing sinister about it. There was, initially, no way to know that the sign had a possible link to one of Los Angeles’s many racist, white-supremacist sagas.

The still-jubilant news traveled fast on social media as well, where fans of old LA were diving into what was one of the city’s most substantial historical discoveries in recent memory. One of the leading voices in this conversation was Esotouric, a niche tour company that, prior to the pandemic, offered guided trips into “the secret heart of Los Angeles.” (For now, they’re doing weekly webinars.)

Cooper and Schave could be described as something like aggressive historians. Their tours and seminars are generally focused on disintegrating subcultures of a wilder, bygone Los Angeles, and their tone is often feisty and uncompromising. The LA they love is being demolished at a rapid clip, after all. And the LA that’s replacing it? They’re not fans.

“Everything today is shit,” said Schave. “Today is so boring. People just don’t care about anything anymore. They don’t know how to build buildings anymore. I’m a trained stonemason; I’m here to tell you that the level of craftsmanship in construction is nonexistent today.”

To people like Schave and Cooper, a neon sign like this one is more than just a historical artifact—it’s an artistic one. And given the age of the sign—at least 80 years old, and possibly dating back as far as the Great Depression, according to neon historian Dydia DeLyser—it’s the type that most preservationists believe is worth going to the mat for.

But that kind of affection for neon is hardly universal. And even the moderate level of affection that does exist today in museums and preservation organizations was hard-won.

“I appreciated neon [when I was younger] simply because no one else seemed to,” said J. Eric Lynxwiler, president of the board of trustees at the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, not far from Pasadena. “I wound up doing a lot of work with the LA Conservancy’s Modern Committee. They were focused on saving buildings, and I was the one who kept saying, ‘What about the sign? What about the sign?’”

MONA was founded in 1981, at a time when most decommissioned signs were likely to end up in the trash. “I have literally dumpster-dived to get neon, and saved them and put them back together,” said Lynxwiler, who has been with the museum for 21 years. “And then people go, ‘Oh my god, that’s gorgeous,’ and I’m like, ‘You would never guess where I picked that from.’”

Nowadays, places like MONA or the Neon Museum in Las Vegas will gladly save notable signs from that fate by adding them to their collections, running up their electricity bills to keep them alive in showrooms. (Or in the case of the Neon Museum, their boneyard.) But even curators of these museums would prefer that the signs stay in their original locations, whenever possible. 

In this case, the Adohr sign has likely been sitting on that very spot since 1935, when the dairy offices moved from nearby South Pasadena to Arroyo Parkway, then known as Broadway. (Adding credence to this timeline, a public records request to the City of Pasadena turned up a sign installation permit that, while difficult to read, appears to be from 1934—and notes the arrival of a sign made by Electrical Products Corp., a prominent Los Angeles–based sign-maker responsible for landmarks like the recently decommissioned Coca-Cola neon billboard in San Francisco, as well as the original lighting system of the Hollywood sign.) 

“Is a sign from the late twenties or early thirties rare? Yes. There just aren’t that many of them that haven’t already been destroyed,” explained DeLyser, who also serves on the board of trustees at MONA. “But what’s really rare about that sign is that it was sitting there on its original building. Having a sign appear like that—that people didn’t know about… That just about doesn’t happen.” 

While it hasn’t been turned on in many decades, it hasn’t left its resting place as the world has changed around it either. And now that it’s resurfaced, a lot more has come to light than just a hunk of aluminum and neon.

In situations like these, it doesn’t matter that historians and preservationists, and people on Twitter want the sign restored and lit back up. Technically speaking, only two entities have any say over what happens to it: the city and the owner of the building.

And off the bat, the City of Pasadena doesn’t seem to think there’s enough here to get involved on their own. “The City has reviewed the facts it has available and does not believe it is historic,” a Pasadena media representative said via email. “The [property owner] is not required to do anything with the sign.” (No reason was given as to why it was not deemed historic, however; “I think it is pretty obvious that it is,” said Salimian, in response.)

As for the property owner, good luck finding out what they think. The building is listed as having been purchased for $2.8 million in 2015 by the Pynchonian-sounding Montrose Pacific LLC, which has very little trace online but can be connected to Bruce Meyer, a powerful real estate mogul, and also the founding chairman of the Petersen Automotive Museum, one of the biggest museums in Los Angeles. The LLC is listed under the same Beverly Hills address as Arenda Capital Management, a real estate investment firm co-founded by Evan Meyer, Bruce’s son, but multiple calls and emails to the company went unanswered. Several emails to a representative at the Petersen Museum, sent in an attempt to make contact with Bruce Meyer, also went unanswered.

This is where the hot chicken man comes in. Johnny Ray Zone founded Howlin’ Ray’s in Los Angeles with his wife, Amanda Chapman, in 2015, after being inspired during a stint in Nashville, where hot chicken was created. From a business standpoint, this was a stroke of genius: The Chinatown location of Howlin’ Ray’s quickly became a sensation, with endless lines snaking around the mall plaza in which it was located. From a cultural standpoint, however, the proliferation of hot chicken outside of Nashville has not been without controversy: Some feel that André Prince Jeffries of Prince’s, the original hot chicken establishment, has been deprived of larger success by the predominantly white class of new hot chicken entrepreneurs, like Zone. The stakes of this conversation only continue to rise, given that a significant number of competing spots have since followed Zone’s lead, and now the dish—a heavily spiced fried chicken—is its own genre in the city. But Howlin’ Ray’s remains at the top of the heap in terms of local acclaim and popularity.

Zone grew up in Los Angeles, in the eastside area of Echo Park, and his real last name actually is “Zone.” (His father, Ray Zone, was a notable 3D comic-book artist who legally changed his name from Larry Miller at the outset of his career.) Zone and Chapman recently bought a house in Pasadena, and they decided to open the second Howlin’ Ray’s branch nearby, leasing the spot on Arroyo Parkway a few months after the pandemic began. This kickstarted a major renovation project, which brought the sign back into the open.

“They uncovered it, and I was like, ‘That is super dope,’” Zone remembered of his first reaction to the Adohr sign. “But then I did a little bit of research on it…”

Only a distant memory now, Adohr Milk Farms was once one of the largest dairies in the world. Founded in 1916 by Rhoda Rindge Adamson and her husband, Merritt “Smoke” Adamson, Adohr—which is Rhoda’s name backward—came to embody what we now think of as the straight-laced 20th-century milkman in Southern California. At a time when refrigerators were less effective and dairy products less long-lasting, the service of having someone drop your milk off every couple of days was invaluable to those who could afford it. It was such a well-oiled system that many Adohr milkmen were trusted to let themselves into people’s homes if no one was there, taking the milk all the way to the icebox, and leaving some ice cream, too, if you indulged in that sort of thing.

Rhoda was a successful and intrepid businesswoman, but she was not self-made. She was born an heiress to one of the largest empires in American history, her parents being the famous Frederick and May Rindge, who were colloquially known as “the King and Queen of Malibu.” 

There are few families as impactful in the history of Los Angeles as the Rindge/Adamsons, not just because of what they developed, but also because of what they didn’t: After Frederick died in 1905, May entered into a bitter, multi-decade battle to keep her family’s sprawling Malibu ranch to themselves, holding off the government’s desired railroads and highways. At a great personal cost, and involving some ridiculous legal schemes such as a fake railroad on the beach, May was able to deter the powers that be for a good while, before slowly losing the fight, and dying with just $750 to her name in 1941. It was a story that was well known in its time but has since faded from the collective memory.

“I started reading these old issues of the LA Times,” said David K. Randall, who wrote the 2017 biography The King and Queen of Malibu, “and started seeing stories about this woman who owned all of Malibu, and who had armed guards patrolling it, and told them to shoot people on sight. This sounded so bizarre—why had I never heard of this before?”

But all of that wasn’t really what caught Johnny Ray Zone’s attention. What he latched onto when reading about Adohr Farms was what many others did as well: the outstanding accusation that Rhoda Adamson was a “leading” figure in the efforts to keep Nat King Cole and his family out of Hancock Park. 

This is another tale that was well known in its time but has since faded from the collective memory. In 1948, Cole, then rising fast on the back of big hits like “Nature Boy” and—what else?—“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” decided to purchase a home in the affluent, then-all-white neighborhood of Hancock Park. A coalition of homeowners in the area was aghast and put together the Hancock Park Property Owners Association to challenge the legal ability of the Cole family to break the neighborhood covenant that was put into place in 1920, which barred “undesirables” like Black and Jewish people from living there, according to Daniel Mark Epstein’s 1999 biography Nat King Cole. (“If I see anybody undesirable coming into this neighborhood, I’ll be the first to complain,” Cole is reported to have told the association in a meeting.)

As it turned out, a Supreme Court decision in a case from a few months prior—Shelley v. Kraemer—had ruled these covenants unconstitutional, so the Coles were there to stay. That didn’t stop them from having to endure horrific abuse regardless; at various points after moving in, their family dog was poisoned to death, a gunshot was fired through a window, and someone burned the n-word into their front lawn. Nat’s oldest daughter, Carol “Cookie” Cole, remembered that last attack lingering in the grass long after the incident, according to Will Friedwald’s new biography Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole. “The shadow of that word was just always there,” she said.

Zone found himself much less attached to the sign after reading about this. “I was kind of thrown off and I wanted to take it off,” he said. Confused and angry, he put up a now-deleted Instagram picture of the sign, with the caption: “Bout to drop a Nat King Cole mural on this. Some1 tell me why.” 

The word was starting to get around. And it was unsettling some of those who were initially excited about the sign’s discovery. (“I guess the milk wasn’t the only thing they wanted to keep white,” someone commented on Twitter.) It was causing enough of a stir that Kim Cooper decided to write an Esotouric blog post considering the situation. 

In it, she detailed her belief that the accusation of Rhoda having “[worked] closely” with the Property Owners Association to keep the Coles out is not particularly credible, because it came from only one source—a 1948 article in the Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black-owned paper—and because that source cites Adamson’s involvement via “rumors,” which were denied by an Adohr spokesman. (In the story, the rumors are referred to as “persistent,” and the spokesman gives it as his “opinion” that there was “little basis for the report.”)

“This is the source for the accusations that have tainted the enjoyment of one of the most significant neon sign discoveries in years,” Cooper wrote. “Unattributed rumors denied by a spokesman, printed in a newspaper rife with misspellings.” (A representative at the Sentinel did not reply to a request for comment.)

No other citations are readily found online or in newspaper archives of Rhoda Adamson having any involvement in the Cole saga—which does allow for some reasonable doubt about this one article. (For their part, the Cole family respectfully declined to comment for this story.) But the accusation doesn’t seem likely to have appeared out of thin air, either. And it isn’t all that hard to imagine that someone like Adamson, who watched her family’s real estate empire shrink dramatically over the course of her life, being heinously tenacious in matters related to property value. 

“I never came across any firsthand things of her supporting [the covenant] or not,” says Randall, who spent seven years researching the Rindge/Adamsons. “But it wouldn’t be out of character, I don’t think. And it also wouldn’t be out of character for someone in her social class and her circumstances to harbor racist sentiments.”

Even though Frederick Rindge left behind a legacy of philanthropy, there is also the fact that his widow May—whom Rhoda was reasonably close to throughout her life—ended up creating, or at the very least endorsing, her own racial covenant for Malibu. This development is documented in the period after she started mournfully leasing (and eventually selling) her beachfront property off piece by piece in the 1920s, according to “Free the Beach,” a 2005 article by Robert García and Erica Flores Baltodano in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. A typical Malibu covenant from the Rindge era disallowed “any person not of the white or Caucasian race,” except for “employees” of the property owners, from enjoying the beach.

One more story is worth telling: May brought in a man named Art Jones to help manage her “Malibu Movie Colony” cottages, which were initially being leased out for the most part to stars of the day like Marie Prevost and Clara Bow. Jones stayed in this role after May’s death and was serving as the Colony realtor during the 1950s when it was rumored that none other than Nat King Cole was interested in one of the homes. As noted in Mike Davis’ landmark 1995 essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Jones’s reaction to this news was to vow that “he would personally head a vigilante group to burn [Cole] out.” This time, according to the Independent, Cole decided not to move in.

The question remains: What about the sign? 

No matter what the City of Pasadena thinks, it is historic, according to pretty much everyone qualified to speak on the matter, and deserves to be saved in some way, shape, or form. And yet it also likely, but not definitively, carries this ugly, racist past with it—an ugly, racist past that some would reasonably prefer not to think about every time they drive by. 

“This story and the actions of the people that created the sign reinforce an offensive past,” the NAACP said in a statement when reached for comment. “We shouldn’t romanticize that, nor should we rewrite history to create an alternative narrative about the harmful acts propagated by racists… When it comes to preservation, we have to think critically about what we want to preserve in this country and how.”

To be clear, no one, including the NAACP, has publicly advocated for the sign to be permanently taken down or thrown out. And no one has equated the act of keeping the sign up with something like flying a Confederate flag or having a Columbus statue in a park. But many, including Zone, think there needs to be some sort of compromise that acknowledges a story that shouldn’t be forgotten—something that allows people to think critically about what we preserve and how we do it. 

“Our intentions are that we want to keep [the sign], we want to preserve it, we really love the history behind it,” said Zone. “And if we’re gonna do something we want validity to it if certain accusations are true or whatever.”

As to whether he might be more attuned to the nuances of this situation because of the inherent delicacy of being a white man running a prominent hot chicken establishment, Zone doesn’t see much to it.

“I’m not too worried about that,” he said. “And I don’t think I have to tread too carefully because our intentions are pure.” In other words, “as long as you have the integrity of preserving a tradition,” he considered, “what’s the difference between preserving a sign and preserving a dish?”

Seeking his own kind of integrity is what brought him back to the mural. Zone said he’s working with the landlord to make sure the sign is restored and reinstalled as a term of the lease, but that he’s also going to commission an accompanying on-site portrait “out of respect for the Cole family and out of respect for what he went through,” he said. “Everybody wins. Everybody eats. Everybody gets what they want.” 

Most appear to be satisfied with this approach, including Esotouric: “Especially if people have heard about it and they think they know the story, let’s get people talking more,” Cooper said. “I think that’s wonderful.” 

That said, Cooper and Schave aren’t thrilled about the implication of directly associating the sign with Rhoda’s alleged role in our country’s shameful history. “My concern is the idea that you can’t look at it anymore as a beautiful object—that it can only be seen through a filter of apologizing,” she said. “And that’s too much.”

It might all be a moot point either way because currently, the sign is nowhere to be seen. It was taken down in October during construction, which caused a mild panic online—but Zone says it’s accounted for by the owner, and that the two of them are in the late stages of an agreement that will keep it on Route 66 at least as long as Howlin’ Ray’s serves hot chicken there. (He’s even considering lighting up the “h” and “r” of “Adohr” in a different color to abbreviate the “H” and “R” of “Howlin’ Ray’s.”) After the restaurant’s time, though, who knows.

Salimian is pleased with this development, and said Pasadena Heritage doesn’t plan on landmarking the sign in the immediate future—even though he believes such an effort would be successful—because in this case, the prognosis is good for it to go back up organically. This, to a preservation group, is preferable to trying to legally wring a property owner into accepting a landmark status of their building, a liability that can apparently deter even a co-founder of a major museum from embracing responsibility.

“You’re kind of seeing what we do as preservation advocates,” Salimian said, “because we have to keep the faith. Get people to do the right thing. I think this one will work out because everyone seems to somewhat have the same game plan. But you could have a foreign developer or a developer on the east coast that just wants to get rid of this sign and save trouble. And that could’ve happened. So we’re kind of lucky in this situation.”

In 1983, long after the Pacific Coast Highway ended the Rindge/Adamsons’ dream of a private family paradise in Malibu, a large storm ripped through the coastal area and did some excavation work. The railroad to nowhere that May Rindge had built, which was initiated solely as a way to prevent a competing railroad from being built nearby, had been pushed to the surface, the tracks now poking through the sand, stunning locals who had no idea they were ever there. 

All that time the railroad had been buried, getting covered in layer after layer of beach, the makeup of the surrounding area was transforming from a rugged, dangerous swath of legitimate wilderness into a swanky, elite beachfront community. These days, Malibu is something of a cliché—a weird combination mostly of tourists and the uber-rich who live there. 

Next to the Malibu Pier, where you can get a $32 skirt steak burrito at the Malibu Farm restaurant, is the Adamson House, a beach palace built in 1929 by Rhoda and Merritt Adamson that is now a historic landmark and museum. In front of it is one of the most gorgeous beaches you will ever see. Across the street is a Jack in the Box. In between is another treacherous highway tantamount to understanding the American Dream. At a gas station nearby, “Constellations,” by Jack Johnson, plays over speakers.

When reached for comment via a representative at the Adamson House—about the sign, about Adohr, about Rhoda, about the Coles—the Adamson family didn’t respond. That wasn’t a surprise to David K. Randall: “Nobody in the family likes to talk to people,” he said, before explaining that the family aligns themselves with an age-old tenet: “They have a saying that your name should only be in the paper when you’re born, when you’re married, and when you die.”

It may be just as well. When the past gets dug up like this, sometimes the lights turn right back on as if they had never been turned off in the first place—and you see the world as it really was.

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