After lighting up Yonge Street for nearly 50 years, the Sam The Record Man sign is now collecting dust, dismantled and stored in crates in a quiet Vaughan warehouse.
The location and condition of the sign have been kept secret by Ryerson, but the sign has now been traced and its whereabouts confirmed by Gregory Signs and Engraving.
David Grose, Gregory’s sales manager, says his company was contracted by Ryerson to care for and safeguard the sign after it was taken it down in 2008. Over six years, he says the school may spend up to $42,000 storing the sign in a dozen custom crates.
“There are four or five frames in each crate,” said Grose. “Each frame is three or four feet long with chicken wire over it. The tubes are attached to the chicken wire and they hang there individually tagged and secured so they don’t bang each other and smash.”
Grose said everything but the neon tubes, wires and light bulbs were discarded when the Sam building was demolished.
As each piece of tubing was taken down, it was traced onto a Sam sign blueprint so that the reconstruction will look identical. The dismantling process took three weeks.
Before the sign was taken down, however, Grose had to make it work again for Sam’s swan song.
“Ryerson contracted us to restore the sign to a level that could work for Nuit Blanche,” said Grose.
On Oct. 4, 2008 the neon discs lit up the Toronto sky for the last time since the building was demolished.
“We were able to get 95 per cent of the sign working [for Nuit Blanche],” he said. “We replaced a lot of the tubes so not all of them are so old.”
Immediately after Nuit Blanche, the sign was dismantled, labelled and boxed. A truck towed away 2,000 pounds of neon wattage, which is about 260 tubes and numerous wires and cables.
Since then, the sign has been in the care of Gregory’s and will remain so until the company is, presumably, asked to remount it. But no contract to do so has been issued yet.
Despite being boxed for five years, the sign’s remaining parts “look good,” said Grose.
However, the sign is enormous, and at 20,000 pounds and 600 square feet, it dwarfs most building exteriors. Remounting it would be a huge financial commitment.
“The $250,000, that everyone reported, was our worst-case scenario figure with a 10 per cent error margin either way,” said Grose.
“It’s not just the cost of the sign. It’s everything – engineers, structural work and actually remounting it. That quarter million was just to get it back up. Nothing to do with maintaining it or hydro costs.”
When the $250,000 bomb was dropped, Grose said, “I think they fell off their chairs.”
The sign is power hungry and, “will probably cost Ryerson around $30,000 – $40,000 per year in hydro,” said Grose. “If hung on the library, repairs to the sign, maintenance, or checkups could cost the school $5,000 per trip up to access it.”
Ryerson paid $150,000 to remove the sign in 2008. In addition to storage fees and with the $250,000 worst-case scenario figure, they could spend somewhere close to half a million dollars on the sign.
After 10 years of paying hydro and maintenance that figure could double to $1 million.
“I can see how it scared them a lot,” said Grose. “It’s a huge cost.”
But cost reflects demand, and these may be the most wanted neon tubes in the city. Not to mention, they’ve been around longer than most of our parents.
Sam Sniderman founded the eponymous chain in 1937 on College Street, but it wasn’t until 1961 that he established the 347 Yonge St. store – the birthplace of the sign.
It was at this location where the iconic discs were mounted; spinning for 36 years until 2007 when the Sniderman family closed the flagship store.
It was hard for record buffs to accept their beloved music mecca was bought by sprawling Ryerson.
“We started to look at that land as a potential for the university,” said Ryerson president Sheldon Levy. “Then, almost within months, the business went under.”
The school originally wanted to construct a library annex, but the public protested. Heritage documents were waved while the university clamoured for enhanced student learning facilities. Caught between a rock sign and a hard place, the city tried to mediate.
Finally a contract was drafted and signed between Ryerson and the city and the school took possession of the property on Jan. 18, 2008.
The hunt then began for an architect that could transform a tired corner of Yonge Street into a thriving intersection.
“We issued a request for proposals to seek an architect for the Student Learning Centre (SLC),” said Ryerson’s vice president of administration and finance, Julia Hanigsberg, in an email.
“We had responses from some of the best local and international firms. It was always the university’s commitment that we would bring exceptional design to Yonge Street.”
The winning design was a sleek, eight-storey, all-glass structure with mezzanine retail space and open-concept study areas – exactly what Ryerson envisioned.
The contract Ryerson has with the city states they must use “reasonable best effort” to find a place for the sign on the new SLC. Failing that, the sign would be mounted on the library.
One of the SLC architects, Mike Smith, said it was always known the building would have trouble accommodating the sign.
When asked at what point in the design process the sign was dropped, Smith said, “after design development. After the concept stage – after everything firmed up.”
Ryerson hasn’t technically broken their agreement. The SLC was never designed to house the sign – and, contractually, it doesn’t have to.
Levy has taken a strong stance on the matter. “For people that think that the university had an obligation to hire an architect that could handle the sign, they may wish we had that obligation, but we never had that obligation. It was never the agreement we struck.”
Sam sign lovers see Levy as an artful contract dodger and want the school to honour the original agreement. Levy, however, maintains that Ryerson is fulfilling the contract.
“(Architect) Snøhetta never had the obligation in their design to hang (the sign),” said Levy. “That was never a requirement. We then tried with the city to see if the sign could be accommodated with the architect on that building. Everyone concluded it could not. So, we went to the other possibility, which was on Gould Street.”
Despite the president’s strong words, the school’s image has taken a bruising, if not beating, over the controversy.
Even Mayor Rob Ford has gotten involved in the debate and is convening a team of Ryerson administrators, city representatives and Sam sign activists to find a solution.
Ford has previously expressed his hope that the signs are rehung on or near their original spot.
It isn’t as easy as waving your magic welding wand though, says Grose. The design of the building itself, mainly the decision to use glass, is not conducive to supporting a sign with such specific technology requirements.
But the year-long extension Ryerson is seeking means a chance to find a potentially more cost-friendly spot for the sign. It would also allow them to consider locations off campus.
“Yonge-Dundas Square is Toronto’s version of Times Square,” said Grose. “What better place to put it where millions of people will go to see it?”
Moving the sign to Yonge-Dundas Square would put it in good company with otherretro Toronto landmarks like the Hard Rock Cafe and Eaton Centre.
There are also modifications Ryerson could make to the sign to bring down the cost.
“Computer-run LED lights mean you could create something that is better than it ever was,” said Grose.
Sam sign fans have expressed dismay in remaking the sign with modern technology, but LED lights run more efficiently and could cut the cost of electricity up to 30 per cent.
There are ways to ‘age’ the sign too, said Grose. Even if it were made of LED and had an aluminum backing, it wouldn’t necessarily have to look brand new.
At the age it is now, though, the sign needs serious upgrades before remounting.
“We have everything we need to put it back up and make it right,” said Grose. “There is no doubt that there is a way to make it work. I just don’t think we are there yet.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 25, 2013.