Salvaging historic downtown Encinitas signs

The removal of the iconic Surf Cleaners sign in downtown Encinitas has sparked a push to save historic business signs.

Since the early 1950s, the Surf Cleaners sign hung over the entrance of the dry cleaning business at 760 South Coast Highway 101. Many locals were surprised last fall when the sign unceremoniously came down.

Mike Shaw, whose family owns the property, said city regulations prevented him from keeping the old sign there.

“I was willing to do anything,” he said.

The sign was in danger of falling down due to rusted brackets, so Shaw had planned to temporarily take it down for repairs and restoration. But he found out this would have subjected the sign to current city regulations that don’t allow signs to hang over sidewalks, nor exceed size limits, according to Shaw.

Shaw said he was left without a choice. He didn’t want a sign that weighs hundreds of pounds to topple onto the sidewalk and hurt or kill somebody.

The sign, Shaw added, is an important part of his family’s history. His grandfather was the late Sid Shaw, the original Surf Cleaners owner, who was also well known for his contributions to local civic and community life.

“He loved that sign,” Shaw said.

Councilman Tony Kranz said the situation came to his attention a few months ago. At his request on Feb. 10, the council sometime in the future will discuss relaxing city rules to allow business owners to take down and repair their vintage signs without fear of the signs losing their grandfathered status.

“This is the first time this kind of problem has come up to my knowledge, and I think it’s worth looking at,” Kranz said.

He stated the current limits on sign sizes were put in place so that downtown wouldn’t be overwhelmed by imposing signs, so any revisions should target signs with historic value if legally allowed.

Thora Guthrie, executive director of Encinitas 101 Main Street, said the Surf Cleaners sign represents a piece of past Encinitas.

“As our downtown changes, that’s a reminder of a time, place and cool architectural style,” Guthrie said. She noted the sign isn’t only a local landmark — it’s featured in a national book chronicling old business signs.

Guthrie said the sign was whisked away without her knowing, adding that’s unfortunate because Encinitas 101’s mission includes historic preservation. Retro signs, though, are now on the group’s radar.

Encinitas 101 is cataloguing historic signs, with the sign hanging above Daley Double Saloon being another example. Plus, the group intends to contact property managers so they’re aware that Encinitas 101 will take retro signs in the event a new business moves in and doesn’t want them. Guthrie said this is fairly common.

She recently happened to spot a crane taking down the old sign for Cork & Keg Liquors, which closed and will be replaced by another business. The property owner agreed to give the sign to Encinitas 101.

“Therein lies another piece: Where do we put these signs and how do we restore them? We’re still trying to figure that out, but anything is better than losing the sign,” Guthrie said.

Kerry Kusiak, senior planner with the city, said city staff spoke with Shaw about the Surf Cleaners sign, but never received formal plans. He said a sign retains its grandfathered status when taken down for maintenance or some repairs. However, major structural overhauls trigger current city rules.

Kusiak said Encinitas’ limits on signs are similar to other coastal cities, in large part because they fall under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission. The agency has sought to discourage large signs to cut down on visual clutter.

If city rules do indeed change, Shaw said he’d like to rehang the Surf Cleaners sign at its original spot.

The sign is now at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum. Retired firefighter Bob Voorhees brought the sign there after finding out it was at a contractor’s house in Vista. Voorhees said he hopes the sign returns to the Surf Cleaners building, but the museum would also make a good home in case that doesn't work out.

“I’m not a sign connoisseur, but I appreciate its place in Encinitas history,” Voorhees said.

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