Obtaining Sign Permits in Historic Districts

www.holidaysigns.com-vba-bank-signs-richmond-va-ruckersville-charlottesville-pioneerOBTAINING SIGN PERMITS IN HISTORIC DISTRICTS

Historic Sign Restoration Projects-Virginia

  Obtaining sign permits in historic districts is generally doable if the intent of historic preservation is in mind. Holiday Signs, a quality custom electric sign company located near Richmond, Virginia, has been involved with many high-profile historic restoration projects: The Hotel John Marshall, The Virginia Repertory Theater, and the Altria Theater, to name several. How one obtains sign permits for signage projects in historic areas varies by location, and contacting Holiday Signs can help you understand the options for permitting these types of sign projects within our service area.

March 2014-Technically Challenging- Altria Theater Project-Sales pic6

  The following information is an excerpt from an article by Michael J. Auer, The Preservation of Historic Signs, a brief published by the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Cultural Resources Section. According to the article, historic signs contribute to the character of buildings and districts and have value in themselves apart from the buildings to which they may be attached. However, any program to preserve historic signs must recognize challenges. Sign preservation involves aesthetic concerns and generates community debate. Community goals often conflict: retaining diverse elements from the past, encouraging artistic expression in new signs, zoning for aesthetic concerns, and reconciling business requirements with preservation.

  That’s why preserving historic signs is not always easy; but the intrinsic merit of many signs, as well as their contribution to the overall character of a place, makes the effort worthwhile. Observing the guidelines given below can help preserve both business and history.

Retaining Historic Signs

Retain historic signs whenever possible, particularly when they are:

  • associated with historic figures, events or places.
  • significant as evidence of the history of the product, business or service advertised.
  • significant as reflecting the history of the building or the development of the historic district. A sign may be the only indicator of a building’s historic use.

October 2013- Technically Challenging- VA Rep Theater1

  • characteristic of a specific historic period, such as gold leaf on glass, neon, or stainless steel lettering.
  • integral to the building’s design or physical fabric, as when a sign is part of a storefront made of Carrara glass or enamel panels, or when the name of the historic firm or the date are rendered in stone, metal or tile. In such cases, removal can harm the integrity of a historic property’s design, or cause significant damage to its materials.
  • outstanding examples of the signmaker’s art, whether because of their excellent craftsmanship, use of materials, or design.
  • local landmarks, that is, signs recognized as popular focal points in a community.
  • elements important in defining the character of a district, such as marquees in a theater district.

October 2013- Technically Challenging- VA Rep Theater2

Maintaining and Repairing Historic Signs

  Maintenance of historic signs is essential for their long-term preservation. Sign maintenance involves periodic inspections for evidence of damage and deterioration. Light bulbs may need replacement. Screws and bolts may be weakened, or missing altogether. Dirt and other debris may be accumulating, introduced by birds or insects, and should be cleaned out. Water may be collecting in or on sign cabinets, threatening electrical connections. The source of water penetration should be identified and sealed.

November 2013-Technically Challenging-Hotel John Marshall 2 pic 2

  Extensive repairs should be undertaken by professionals. The sign industry is a large and active one. Sign designers, fabricators and skilled craftsmen are located throughout the country and finding help from qualified sources should not be difficult. Before contracting for work on historic signs, however, owners should check references, and view other projects completed by the same company.

  Major repairs may require removal of the sign to a workshop. Since signs are sometimes damaged while the building is undergoing repair, work on the building should be scheduled while the sign is in the shop. (If the sign remains in place while work on the building is in progress, the sign should be protected.)

November 2013-Technically Challenging-Hotel John Marshall 2 pic 3

Reusing Historic Signs

If a building or business has changed hands, historic signs associated with former enterprises in the building should be reused if possible by:

  • keeping the historic sign—unaltered. This is often possible even when the new business is of a different nature from the old. Preferably, the old sign can be left in its historic location; sometimes, however, it may be necessary to move the sign elsewhere on the building to accommodate a new one. Conversely, it may be necessary to relocate new signs to avoid hiding or overwhelming historic ones, or to redesign proposed new signs so that the old ones may remain. (The legitimate advertising needs of current tenants, however, must be recognized.) Keeping the old sign is often a good marketing strategy. It can exploit the recognition value of the old name and play upon the public’s fondness for the old sign. The advertising value of an old sign can be immense. This is especially true when the sign is a community landmark.
  • relocating the sign to the interior, such as in the lobby or above the bar in a restaurant. This option is less preferable than keeping the sign outside the building, but it does preserve the sign, and leaves open the possibility of putting it back in its historic location.


  • modifying the sign for use with the new business. This may not be possible without destroying essential features, but in some cases it can be done by changing details only. In other respects, the sign may be perfectly serviceable as is.


If none of these options is possible, the sign could be donated to a local museum, preservation organization or other group.


Contact a Holiday Signs Project Manager


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Historic Preservation – Downtown Development –  Main Street Restoration – VA – MD – DC – NC – Signage