From its longtime perch over East Hastings Street to its new home in the Museum’s permanent collection, the Blue Eagle Cafe sign tells a fascinating story about both the history of neon in Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside’s long and steady decline.
The Blue Eagle Cafe opened at 130 E. Hastings St. in 1944. It was a simple neighbourhood spot, serving Canadian and Chinese fare in a thriving stretch of downtown. The iconic neon sign would have been added a few years after the opening, as the ongoing Second World War brought restrictions to the availability and use of sheet metal used in neon-sign production.
By the 1950s, the Downtown Eastside was becoming the epicentre of the city’s drug trade and the Blue Eagle would earn a reputation as a place to score heroin. In 1999, the cafe lost its business license as a part of a City Hall crackdown on “problem premises”—and foreshadowing what would happen at the nearby Only Sea Foods (sic) restaurant last year (read our blog post on that unfortunate story here). The cafe became a convenience store; a cheap sign for “R&R Convenience” was erected beneath the cerulean-blue neon.
The old sign remained, awaiting a move into the Pantages Theatre next door. Property owner Marc Williams had put forward a plan to restore the 1908 vaudeville theatre and install the sign in the lobby. When those plans fell through in December, Williams generously offered to donate the sign to the Museum, where it recently arrived. It is now in storage awaiting restoration work that will be done in time for a new neon gallery that will open in the fall of 2011.
The design of the Blue Eagle sign is significant, says Joan Seidl, the museum’s director of collections and exhibitions. “It embodies the history of neon and the challenges to it with neon on the bottom and a plastic sign on top.” She believes the back-lit plastic upper section was added in the 1970s. The sign joins another important piece of Blue Eagle Cafe history. In 2001, the Museum acquired a painted-glass sign that once hung in the front window to obscure sight lines into the long-troubled spot. With this latest acquisition, we’ll keep it from becoming just a memory.
Image credit: John Allison