Route 66 in the News

Doughnut hole in Upland is filled in West Hollywood

2011-10-06 10:14:31

W. HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - WINCHELL'S DONUTS had a classic sign on Upland's Foothill Boulevard for four decades before losing its lease in 2004.

What happened to that sign? It went into storage, first in Barstow, then in Los Angeles.

Now it's back on Route 66 -- this time in West Hollywood.

Nobody's using it to sell doughnuts. The sign is on display as a work of art.

It's one of four former commercial neon signs installed along Santa Monica Boulevard purely for show as a way of marking West Hollywood's 25th anniversary.

Part of an outdoor art program, "On Route 66 Lights" features four transplanted signs -- from La Fonda Mexican Food in Glendale, Zinke's Shoe Repair in Glendale and the Virginia Court Motel in Meridian, Miss., plus Upland's Winchell's Donuts -- to complement some 50 neon signs on active businesses along Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards.

The project is a collaboration between L.A.'s Museum of Neon Art and the city of West Hollywood. The museum loaned the signs to the city.

With its yellow triangle piercing both a giant brown doughnut and a red and white panel with the shop's name in script, the Winchell's sign is distinctive and colorful.

"I love it. It's so much fun," said Andrew Campbell, West Hollywood's cultural affairs administrator. "It's so big, and it's of a time we just don't see anymore."

The three other signs decorate the grassy median in the center of Santa Monica Boulevard.

The Winchell's sign was placed alongside the boulevard rather than in the median.

"It's so big they said it couldn't be on the median," museum executive director Kim Koga explained. "Motorists making a turn couldn't see oncoming traffic."

Watch out for the giant doughnut!

A tip from Upland reader Don J. alerted me to the sign's new home. I took a trip out to West Hollywood one recent weekend to eyeball the sign in its new environment.

It stands outside Plummer Park in a patch of grass next to the Quick Splash 'n' Dash 24-Hour Car Wash at Martel Avenue.

Not everyone realizes it's an art piece.

"We've had a lot of reaction," Campbell told me later. "People at the park say they get a lot of disappointed people sometimes because they expect there to be a doughnut store coming. They ask: `When's the Winchell's coming in?"'

At least Upland's old sign has them talking.

It's disorienting, but delightful, to see the sign again so far from home, and also at ground level. For the first time in the sign's existence, an admirer can walk right up to it.

It's 17 feet tall, according to Koga. I stood next to it and only came up to the lettering at the bottom.

Next to the Winchell's sign is an interpretive panel that explains the sign's history and places it in the proper historical context.

Note: The interpretive panel is not jelly-filled.

The sign is also featured in a colorful pamphlet from City Hall with a map and guide to all of West Hollywood's neon signs.

That's a lot of love for a doughnut sign from Upland.

Motorists and doughnut lovers saw the sign beginning in 1967 (some accounts say 1965) above the cube-like shop at 887 W. Foothill Blvd. at San Antonio Avenue.

The shop lost its lease in 2004 and was slated to be demolished to make way for an optometrist's office. Because the sign wasn't old enough to qualify as historic, city officials said there was nothing they could do.

Some, in fact, were chagrined because a genuine Route 66 sign was going away right when Upland was trying to promote its Route 66 connections.

After Winchell's left, the building sat dormant as the optometry plans, you might say, lost focus. Rather than be demolished, the building was made over and is now Cherry On Top frozen yogurt.

The Winchell's sign was said to be the company's oldest in Southern California. The chain donated the sign to the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow, but the museum had no place indoors to store the sign.

"It sat in someone's yard in the desert for a while. We were afraid it would get shot at," Koga said.

We can't have anyone putting holes in the doughnut.

In 2005 the sign was donated to the Museum of Neon Art. The sign was put in storage because it was too large to fit through the museum's doors, but at least it was protected from the elements (and guns).

The museum has painted and rewired the sign and replaced the neon.

"It looks fantastic," Koga said. I would agree.

Upland Mayor Ray Musser was surprised but pleased to learn of the sign's new life.

"That's great that it's being used and being remembered and wasn't destroyed," Musser said.

The Winchell's sign, it turns out, has been in West Hollywood since August 2010. (News travels slowly.) It's scheduled to leave in January to go back into storage.

The Museum of Neon Art, which had been based in downtown L.A., is in storage itself in preparation for its move to Glendale next year.

The Winchell's sign's next stop is uncertain.

"We're looking for a home for it," Koga said.

In the meantime, a bit of Upland history is being venerated in West Hollywood, 40 miles to the west.

For nostalgists, it might be worth a pilgrimage. You'll have to bring your own doughnuts and coffee, though.

~David Allen,


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