At KC’s Western Auto building, residents try to relight an iconic neon sign

Condo residents hope to make dark Western Auto sign bright again

The sign atop the historic Western Auto building has been dark for some time. Residents of the building, redeveloped into condos, want to light it up again.
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The sign atop the historic Western Auto building has been dark for some time. Residents of the building, redeveloped into condos, want to light it up again.

Some residents of the Western Auto building in downtown Kansas City are hoping to relight its iconic roof-top sign.

Long a landmark in Kansas City, the building has gone through many changes, and the 58-foot tall neon Western Auto sign, a familiar beacon to downtown visitors for half a century, has been on and off in recent years.

Most recently it has been off, prompting longtime Kansas Citians to lament the loss of a unique light from the cityscape.

Some residents of the building, which was converted to condominiums years ago, feel the same way but face a challenge: the price of keeping the sign on. Composed of 2,500 light bulbs and 1,000 feet of neon tubing, the sign exacts a significant cost in electricity and maintenance.

That cost falls on the building’s owners, which include the condominium residents, who have obtained an estimate for the repairs and conversion work needed to turn the sign back on, according to those who live there. The estimate was not available on Tuesday.

The residents have appointed a committee among themselves to try to get the work done and have discussed the possibility of crowdfunding the project.

A property manager at the building declined to comment for this story, and the resident board of directors did not return a message seeking comment.

Meeting minutes from a resident board meeting confirmed the ongoing efforts to relight the sign.

The sign was on in May 2015 when a local photographer captured an image of it while shooting photos downtown.

Observers later noticed the sign was off, and an attempt last year to seek help from the city government failed to get the lights back on, as officials pointed out that the building is a private property.

This week, when the status of the darkened sign came up again on social media, some locals shared their memories of the Western Auto car-parts company, which at one time had more than 1,000 stores around the country.

For Sharon Brisbin Freeman, the sign reminded her of her first job, at the former Western Auto credit office at 16th and Oak streets.

Pat Pepper, of Blue Springs, remembered using babysitting money to buy a transistor radio at the Western Auto store in Raytown in the late 1960s.

The idea of a crowdfunding effort found support with some commenters, including Martha Mason.

“If there were a GoFundMe set up for the WA light, I would contribute,” she wrote on Facebook. “I’ve always loved the WA sign. It just sort of says ‘home’ when you first see it after having been away.”

Originally built for the Coca-Cola Company in 1915, the building became home to the fledgling Western Auto Co. in the 1920s. Western Auto bought the building in 1951.

Western Auto was eventually purchased by Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1988. The company was sold to Advance Auto Parts, a Virginia firm, in 1998.

The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for about 30 years.

When the the 12-story curved tower and two associated buildings were redeveloped 15 years ago, it was the largest downtown condo project in a generation. By then, the neon sign had been dark for more than two years.

When that project moved forward, it was expected the sign would remain, but whether it would be lighted remained an open question.

Other projects bringing new life to downtown buildings have included new lights.

In 2014, a $70 million overhaul of the 33-story Kansas City Power & Light building at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue included a new lighting system on the exterior.

The old spotlights that once lit up the 86-year-old building have been replaced with banks of LED lights. The new system is said to be able to light up the building in any one of 228 colors.

Staff writer Joe Robertson contributed to this report.