Monday, December 28, 2009

Peabody's Cafe at La Plaza Shopping Center

No two issues in Palm Springs seem to polarize the community on a regular basis more than signage and historic preservation, with the liberals being anti-signage and pro-preservation while the conservatives seem to favor the exact opposite. An interesting case that highlights this conflict is that of new signage proposed for Peabody’s Café in the historic La Plaza Shopping Center (1937, Schenck & Williams), a locally designated Class 1 Site.

A comparison of historic and contemporary photos located at the Palm Springs Historical Society helps to illustrate the changes that have occurred to this important historic property over time. The village character of the 1940s photo stands out in strong contrast to the contemporary image of the property - particularly the Peabody’s dual storefront - a tacky assemblage that is currently overwhelmed by signage ( more than 16 at last count) including several that clearly are not permitted. The guardrails, awnings and cheap plastic furniture don’t help matters much either. It is an interesting fact of life that during economic downturns there is a tendency to blame existing architecture or signage for the lack of business. Commercial tenants often feel that remodeling a building or adding signage will solve their economic problems. As it turns out, this is rarely the case, but it does seem to keep the sign companies afloat.

In the proposal recently heard before the Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB), the operator of the café proposed replacing an existing non illuminated circular sign with a much larger “blade” type sign that both echos and competes with the historic marquee of the Palm Canyon Theatre. The HSPB which is charged with overseeing changes to Class I sites reviewed this proposal and supported it with a six to one vote, in spite of the fact that the proposal is contrary to their own guidelines that prohibit false-historicist designs for historic properties. By the café-owner’s own testimony, the new sign is derived from and will compete with the existing Palm Canyon Theatre sign from the 1930s. Imagine if all of the tenants in La Plaza were to follow suit. The only silver lining in the HSPB’s approval is the requirement that Peabody’s remove all of the existing illegal signs.

A word to the Peabody’s owners: its not about the signage fact the café would be a lot more appealing without all the signs as is evidenced by the many successful food operations along Palm Canyon (Pomme Frite, Ruby’s, Kaiser Grill, etc,) that seem to be doing well, even in these recessionary times, with minimal, tasteful signage. Sadly, Peabody’s business probably won’t improve with just the addition of this unfortunate sign. In fact, they would be well-advised to think about improving the quality of the food and the decor of the café. As for the HSPB, a look at National Register Bulletin 25 regarding signage and historic properties might serve as a reminder that their job is to promote the restoration of the site to its original historic character.

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